Court hearing due for Associated Press reporter in Myanmar

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YANGON, Myanmar (AP) – A court in Myanmar is scheduled to hold a hearing on Friday for an Associated Press journalist detained 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.

Thein Zaw, 32, was one of nine media workers taken into custody during a street protest on Feb. 27 in Yangon, the country’s largest city, and has been held without bail.

His hearing Friday comes at the end of his initial remand period, and his lawyer, Tin Zar Oo, said ahead of it that she expected the court to schedule another hearing. She plans to submit her power of attorney as Zaw’s lawyer and perhaps try to apply for bail.

Thein Zaw has 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.

According to the independent Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, 38 journalists have been detained since the military took over Feb. 1, ousting the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. Nineteen are still incarcerated.

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

The military regime has attacked the press in other ways as well. This week it canceled the licenses of five local media outlets that had extensively covered the protests. Mizzima, Democratic Voice of Burma, Khit Thit Media, Myanmar Now and 7Day News have continued operating after they were barred from broadcasting or publishing on any media platform.

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.

Insein Prison in northern Yangon is notorious for housing political prisoners under previous military regimes. Hundreds of protesters detained in the past week, many of them students, are also being held there.

Thein Zaw and at least six other members of the media have been charged with violating a public order law that could see them imprisoned for up to three years, according to his lawyer and the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

The Associated Press 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.”

Many press freedom organizations have joined the call for the release of the detained journalists.

“These charges are a obvious effort to intimidate Myanmar’s journalists into silence and prevent them from reporting on the junta’s increasingly violent crackdown on the protests against its illegitimate rule,” said Scott Griffen, deputy director of the International Press Institute, headquartered in Vienna. “We call on the authorities to immediately drop these groundless charges, and release Thein Zaw and all 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 condemn the attempted media blackout and efforts to silence the voices of the people by revoking the licenses of several local media organizations,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters in Washington on Thursday. “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.”

Even during 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 the military violence directed at Myanmar’s Rohingya minority, more than 700,000 of whom fled to Bangladesh for safety. They were accused of illegally possessing official documents, although they argued that they were framed because of official opposition to their reporting.

They were convicted and sentenced to seven years behind bars before being freed in 2019 in a mass presidential pardon.

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