Authorities in Myanmar have charged Associated Press journalist Thein Zaw and five other members of the media with violating a public order law that could see them imprisoned for up to three years, a lawyer said Tuesday.
The six were arrested while covering protests against the Feb. 1 military coup in Myanmar that ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. The group includes journalists for Myanmar Now, Myanmar Photo Agency, 7Day News, Zee Kwet online news and a freelancer.
Lawyer Tin Zar Oo, who represents Thein Zaw, said the six have been charged under a law that punishes anyone who causes fear among the public, knowingly spreads false news, or agitates directly or indirectly for a criminal offense against a government employee.
The law was amended by the junta last month to broaden its scope and increase the maximum prison term from two years.
AP’s Thein Zaw, 32, was taken into custody on Saturday morning in Yangon, the country’s largest city. He is reported to be held in Insein Prison in northern Yangon, notorious for housing political prisoners under previous military regimes.
According to the lawyer, Thein Zaw was remanded into custody by a court and can be held until March 12 without another hearing or further action.
The AP has called for his immediate release.
“Independent journalists must be allowed to freely and safely report the news without fear of retribution,” Ian Phillips, AP vice president for international news, said after the arrest. “AP decries in the strongest terms the arbitrary detention of Thein Zaw.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists joined that call.
“Myanmar authorities must release all journalists being held behind bars and stop threatening and harassing reporters for merely doing their jobs of covering anti-coup street protests,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “Myanmar must not return to the past dark ages where military rulers jailed journalists to stifle and censor news reporting.”
Thein Zaw was arrested as police charged toward protesters gathered at an intersection in Yangon that has become a meeting point for demonstrators.
Authorities escalated their crackdown on the protesters this past weekend, carrying out mass arrests and using lethal force. The U.N. Human Rights offices said it believes at least 18 people were shot dead Sunday in several cities when security forces opened fire on demonstrating crowds.
The coup reversed years of slow progress toward democracy after five decades of military rule.
In December 2017, two journalists working for the Reuters news agency were arrested while working on a story about Myanmar’s Rohingya minority. They were accused of illegally possessing official documents, although they argued that they were framed because of official opposition to their reporting.
Although their case attracted international attention, they were convicted the following year and were sentenced to seven years behind bars. They were freed in 2019 in a mass presidential pardon.