NEW YORK–The Myanmar authorities’ alarming decision to charge three journalists in Shan state with unlawful association for covering an event organized by an armed ethnic group risks chilling news coverage in Myanmar and demonstrates the urgent need to reform the Unlawful Association Act, PEN America said in a statement today. 

On June 26, military authorities in the northeastern Shan state detained Aye Naing and Pyae Phone Naing of the Democratic Voice of Burma and Thein Zaw of The Irrawaddy, and charged them under the Unlawful Associations Act. The three reporters were arrested on their return from an event organized by the T’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA)—an ethnic armed group designated by Yangon as an “unlawful association.” The event was a drug burning held in honor of the United Nations International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. Within Myanmar, which has a long-running legacy of internal armed conflict, various ethnic armed groups retain de facto authority over areas of the country.

Enacted during British colonial rule, the Unlawful Associations Act criminalizes the belonging to, managing, assisting, or promotion of an “unlawful association”, defined as a relation “which encourages or aids persons to commit acts of violence or intimidation, or of which the members habitually commit such acts.” Conviction can lead up to three years’ imprisonment. Civil society groups have called for the law’s reform and condemn its use to arbitrarily arrest and detain people in ethnic and religious minority regions. 

“Because the law on unlawful associations is so broad, it has been used to curtail a journalist’s ability to cover conflicts between the government and armed ethnic groups,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, Director of Free Expression at Risk Programs at PEN America. “We believe that the charges brought against the reporters will have a chilling effect on the news coverage of ethnic conflict, and call on Myanmar’s legislative bodies to reform the Unlawful Associations Act so that journalists and civil society groups are no longer at risk of prosecution.” 

According to the 2015 PEN America report Unfinished Freedom: A Blueprint for the Future of Free Expression in Myanmar, the law has historically been used to threaten journalists who cover armed groups, regardless of actual involvement in armed activities. Two years ago, on World Press Freedom Day, the military sent a statement to the interim press council threatening that anyone who published statements by the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, an armed group operating in Shan state, would be prosecuted. 

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