More than 30 journalists arrested in Myanmar for reporting on the Feb. 1 military coup that overthrew the country’s elected civilian government are still being held in custody following prisoner amnesties that many had hoped would see them freed, sources in the country say.
The 34 journalists still held include 10 women and a U.S. citizen, Danny Fenster of the Myanmar-based Frontier news magazine, who has been denied family visits and is now in poor health in Insein Prison in the former capital Yangon.
Many of those denied release have been charged with defaming Myanmar’s military under Section 505 (a) of the Penal Code, while others have been charged under anti-terrorism laws over suspected ties with the opposition National Unity Government (NUG) or the local People’s Defense Force (PDF) militias set up to resist military rule, sources say.
Myanmar’s ruling State Administration Council has twice granted amnesty to detainees held for protesting the military coup, once on June 30 in a mass release that included 14 journalists and a second amnesty on Oct. 18-19 that saw 17 journalists freed.
Thuzar, a female freelance journalist arrested in Yangon’s Kamaryut township on Aug. 1 and denied contact with her family for more than a month, was among those left behind this month, her husband Ye Ko told RFA in an interview.
“Those in prison must have been excited and happy at the thought they would be freed, and when nothing happened, it must have been a terrible blow,” Ye Ko said. “Giving unexpected hope to people who were already resigned to their fate and then taking that hope away must be devastating.”
“I would say that this is like killing people in a ‘soft way,” he said.
Also speaking to RFA, a family member of another detainee, well-known journalist Sithu Aung Myint, said she had hoped to see him when news of the October amnesty was announced.
“I am so disappointed that he was not released, as we had initially heard that he was among those to be freed,” she said, adding, “I want all imprisoned media people to be freed.”
”They were arrested just for doing their job, and I believe that they should all be released for the sake of freedom of the press,” she said.
Of the several journalists arrested in northern Myanmar’s Shan state, where villagers are being killed or driven from their homes in clashes between local defense forces and junta troops, only one has so far been released, according to the editor of the Shwe Phee Myay News Agency, a local ethnic media outlet.
“To put it bluntly, the junta is targeting journalists in Shan state,” he said.
“They are carrying out investigations before making their arrests. I think they are trying to maintain a new blackout on the situation in Shan state,” he said.
‘Nothing to fear’
Journalists detained by junta troops or police should have nothing to fear if they had not incited resistance to military rule or been “deeply involved” in illegal work, said State Administration Council spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Htun, speaking to RFA.
“And I would like to say that whether they are in prison, and where they are being held, depends entirely on their own actions,” he said.
Local journalists must now ask themselves whether they should continue with their careers, said veteran journalist Myint Kyaw, noting that there are more journalists and reporters in jail now in Myanmar “than ever before.”
“Since the private media became independent to some extent in 2000, the number of arrests in 2021 has been the highest. Never before in the last 20 years have they been imprisoned like this,” he said.
Myanmar’s ruling State Administration Council says a landslide victory by the civilian National League for Democracy in the country’s November 2020 general election was a result of voter fraud, but has yet to provide evidence of its claims.
Security forces have violently repressed widespread protests against military rule, killing 1,213 people and arresting 7,025 since the Feb. 1 coup, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).
Translated by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Richard Finney.