On 10 November 2017, a Myanmar court sentenced four persons to two month-imprisonment for attempting to fly a drone near the country’s parliament building.
Journalists Lau Hon Meng from Singapore and Mok Choy Lin from Malaysia and their Burmese fixer Aung Naing Soe, have been held in jail since 27 October 2017 in the capital Naypyitaw, along with their driver Hla Tin. They were found to be in violation of the 1934 Aircraft Law.
The incident further demonstrates the deteriorating state of free expression and press freedom in the country.
The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) condemns the sentencing as “disproportionately harsh” and “arbitrary,” noting the unprecedented use of archaic laws to justify the detention and prosecution of the journalists.
The arrests were made as the group were preparing to fly the camera drone. The four had been held under remand for their acts.
“The sentencing of the four is disproportionately harsh, especially as the charges were not made clear at the time of their arrest,” says SEAPA executive director Edgardo Legaspi noting that there were no notices prohibiting the use of drones in place around the area.
Even if such prohibitions existed, the logical action would have been just to stop the group from flying their drone or even confiscating it, if warranted. But there is no reason to detain them, Legaspi emphasized.
SEAPA noted that the TRT World, the Turkish national broadcaster that employed the arrested journalists, said in a statement that the government was informed about the assignment, including filming plans using a drone. Both Lau Hon Meng and Mok Choy Lin had valid journalist visas granted on 21 October 2017.
After the arrest police also conducted a search of the home of Aung Naing Soe, who also works as a local journalist, confiscating his computer and memory sticks.
A trial on 16 November 2017 would determine if the group would also be held liable under the Section 8 of the Import Export law for “illegally” bringing in the drone.
“It is puzzling why Myanmar authorities had to use these two laws against the journalists to justify their arbitrary arrest,” said Legaspi.
The charges puts in place new restrictions for journalists working on assignment in Myanmar, as drones are now widely used in reporting, SEAPA said.