THE European Union on Monday called on the Burmese (Myanmar) government to uphold media freedom in the country, saying there have been a “worrying” number of arrests and prosecutions of journalists in recent months.
The statement by the European bloc came in wake of last week’s arrests of three Burmese journalists who were covering a drug-burning ceremony by an ethnic armed group the government considers an illegal organisation.
The EU said the journalists were being arrested or prosecuted for carrying out their duties Burma and this runs contrary to media freedom, independence and pluralism, which are “at the heart of any democracy”.
“The right to freedom of opinion and expression is a human right guaranteed to all, and it constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democratic society and one of the basic conditions for its progress and development based on the rule of law,” the EU said in the statement issued in agreement with the EU Heads of Mission in Burma.
The bloc added that its member states stand ready to support Burma in “this crucial endeavour” to uphold press freedom in the country.
“We therefore call on the Government of Myanmar (Burma) to provide the necessary legal protection for journalists to work in a free and enabling environment without fear of intimidation, arrest or prosecution.”
The EU is the latest to express concern over the arrests of the journalists. Last week, human rights watchdog Amnesty International (AI) condemned the arrests, saying such action only exacerbates the culture of fear and intimidation the media in Burma have been forced to operate under.
The arrests also come amid heightened concern about restrictions on free speech under Burma’s first pro-democracy civilian government headed by national heroine Aung San Suu Kyi.
The three journalists – Aye Nai and Pyae Phone Naing, both from the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) and Thein Zaw (aka Lawi Weng) of The Irrawaddy online journal – were arrested last Monday along with three others while carrying out work in the conflict-afflicted northern Shan state.
The DVB and Irrawaddy are seen as two of few media outlets that continued to provide independent coverage of events in Burma when it was still a military dictatorship, before the transition to civilian leadership began in 2011.
According to Fortify Rights on Monday, the Burmese Army also reportedly arrested two drivers and a monk in their convoy.
Fortify Rights Chief Executive Officer Matthew Smith said all of those detained are currently being held at the Hsipaw prison in northern Shan State, and face charges under Section 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act, a legislation often used by the junta to stifle dissent.
The journalists and the other detainees and are due to appear before a judge in Hsipaw Township, Shan State on July 11. If convicted, Lawi Weng, Aye Naing, and Pyae Bone Aung and the three civilians face up to three years in prison.
“These journalists were arrested for doing their jobs in a place where the army has a lot to hide,” Smith said.
“No journalist should be arrested for doing their job. A free press is critical for human rights and democracy, and in this case, for ensuring the laws of war are upheld.”