ASEAN Beat | Society | Southeast Asia

Myanmar Expands Crackdown on Journalists

As a court extends the detention of an AP journalist, a Polish journalist was reportedly beaten and detained.

Myanmar Expands Crackdown on Journalists

A file photo of Myanmar security forces, taken by since-detained journalist Robert Bociaga.

Credit: Robert Bociaga

A court in Myanmar on Friday extended the pre-trial detention period for an Associated Press journalist arrested while covering demonstrations against the military’s seizure of power last month. He is facing a charge that could send him to prison for three years. On the same day, Robert Bociaga, a Polish photojournalist who has contributed to The Diplomat, was reportedly beaten and detained.

The AP journalists, Thein Zaw, 32, was one of nine media workers taken into custody during a street protest on February 27 in Yangon, the country’s largest city, and has been held without bail. His next hearing at the Kamayut Township court will be on March 24.

Friday’s hearing , which Thein Zaw attended via a video teleconference, came at the end of his initial remand period.

Thein Zaw and at least six other members of the media have been charged with violating a public order law, according to his lawyer, Tin Zar Oo, and the independent Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Separate hearings were held Friday for the other detained journalists.

Tin Zar Oo and one of Thein Zaw’s brothers were allowed into the courtroom to take part in the 10-minute videoconference. Tin Zar Oo said she was able to submit documents giving her power of attorney for the case, but only at the next hearing might be allowed to submit a bail application.

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A representative of the U.S. Embassy was also present in court for the teleconference, said Aryani Manring, a spokeswoman for the mission. His translator and a policeman, as well as the judge, were also there.

Thein Zaw had not been seen by his lawyer or any of his family members since his arrest. Tin Zar Oo said visits at Insein Prison, where he is being held, are not allowed because of coronavirus concerns, so his family has been dropping off food and supplies for him at the gate.

Tin Zar Oo told The Associated Press that her client looked healthy at Friday’s hearing, but he suffers from asthma at night. She said Thein Zaw’s brother commented that he had lost weight.

Thein Zaw was arrested as he was photographing police, some of them armed, charging down a street at anti-coup protesters. A video shows that although he stepped to the side of the street to get out of their way, several police rushed over and surrounded him. One put him in a chokehold as he was handcuffed and then taken away.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, 38 journalists have been detained since the military ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi on February 1. Nineteen are still incarcerated.

The group says it has verified the detentions of more than 2,000 people as well as 69 deaths.

Also on Friday, local media in Shan State in eastern Myanmar reported that a freelance journalist from Poland had been beaten and arrested by security forces.

The online Kanbawza Tai News said a foreign photojournalist was arrested Thursday while taking pictures of a protest in the city of Taunggyi. A photo provided to the news site shows a man trapped against a wall with one arm raised as he is surrounded by about 10 soldiers.

A guest house owner in Taunggyi, speaking on condition of anonymity because of fear of retribution, identified the man in the photo as Polish photojournalist Robert Bociaga.

Germany’s DPA news agency said it appeared that the man is Bociaga, 30, who has been working for them, but it has not been able to contact him.

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“We are deeply shocked by the arrest and apparent mistreatment of Robert Bociaga,” the agency’s deputy editor-in-chief Sven Goesmann said. “This is an intolerable and unacceptable attack on the freedom of the press and, even in this brutal form, is unfortunately not an isolated case.”

The Polish Foreign Ministry confirmed the arrest of a Polish journalist and said it was trying to contact the detained man and obtain information about his health and legal situation.

Earlier this week, Myanmar authorities canceled the licenses of five local outlets that had extensively covered the protests. Mizzima, Democratic Voice of Burma, Khit Thit Media, Myanmar Now and 7Day News have continued operating despite being barred from broadcasting or publishing on any media platform.

The Associated Press and many press freedom organizations have called for the release of Thein Zaw and the other detained journalists.

The U.S. government, in addition to criticizing the coup and the violence of Myanmar’s security forces, has shown support for the cause of press freedom in the Southeast Asian nation.

“We are deeply concerned about the increasing attacks on the freedom of expression, including for members of the press. We call for the release of journalists and for all others who have been unjustly detained,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters in Washington on Thursday.

Even during Aung San Suu Kyi’s time in office, journalists were often sued for their reporting.

In the highest-profile case, two journalists working for the Reuters news agency were arrested in 2017 while working on a story about military violence directed at Myanmar’s Rohingya minority. They were accused of illegally possessing official documents and sentenced to seven years behind bars before being freed in 2019 in a mass presidential pardon.

Editor’s note: We are deeply concerned by reports that Robert Bociaga, a freelance journalist who frequently contributes to The Diplomat, has been detained by security forces in Myanmar. We are especially disturbed by reports that he was first beaten and injured before being detained. This brutality cannot be justified or accepted.

The Diplomat strongly condemns violence against civilians, whether protesters or journalists like Robert. We call for his immediate release, along with other journalists detained in Myanmar in recent weeks.