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BHRN calls for immediate release of journalists and their drivers over drone use

The Burma Human Rights Network calls for the release of photographer and journalist Aung Naing Soe, foreign journalists Lau Hon Meng and Mok Choy Lin and their driver Hla Tin, who were arrested on 27 October on charges connected to the illegal importing or exporting of restricted or banned goods without a license after their crew flew a drone over the Burmese Parliament.

While Aung Naing Soe was in custody police confiscated electronics from his house, including his laptop, for reasons that seem unlikely to be related to his case. While the possession and use of the drone may have been in violation of the law, Aung Naing Soe was working as a translator, and his role, as well as the role of Hla Tin’s, seems minimal at most.

Even with the use of the drone in violation of the law, he and the others face a potential three years in prison for a minor crime that should result in little more than a fine. Aung Naing Soe has previously drawn negative attention in Burma due to his religious background and willingness to fairly cover discrimination and undemocratic events inside the country.

"The Judiciary system in Burma is as corrupt and biased as its political system. Since the election of the NLD government, freedom of speech and media freedom have been significantly compromised. Burmese military propaganda has effectively changed people's mindsets by portraying journalists and media as a threat and consequently many of Burma's democratic reforms are paralysed," said Kyaw Win, executive director of Burma Human Rights Network.

While several media outlets have previously utilized drones for news coverage, none have yet seen this harsh a response by the Government for doing so.  In a similar incident this month a foreign journalist had a drone confiscated by authorities, but no further action was taken.

In the case of Aung Naing Soe, and the journalists from TRT, there remains a possible political motivation to punish them more harshly as the Turkish outlet and Muslim journalist are working during a period of increased anti-Muslim sentiment in the country. Simultaneously, tensions between the Burmese government and foreign media is higher than usual, and often local journalists suffer for this most as they have the least ability to protect themselves legally.

 It is troubling in this case that Aung Naing Soe and Hla Tin were working as translator and driver to the foreign team and did not themselves bring the drone into the country, which is what they are being held for.  Further it appears they were not operating the drones themselves, as their roles would not have included this.

When these aspects are examined it seems more clear that at very most they have been detained and are facing three years in jail for being in a crew where others utilized a device that simply should have been confiscated with no further incident.

 The Burma Human Rights Network calls on the Burmese Government to ensure Aung Nain Soe and Hla Tin have access to their lawyers, visitation from family, have their belongings returned to them and ultimately that they be released.

"We call for the same rights for Lau Hon Meng and Mok Choy Lin. We also call on the Burmese Government to ensure the foreign journalists who were detained are prosecuted proportionately to their crime, and receive no worse punishment than fine or confiscation of the drone used in the incident. We call on the international community to pressure Burma to ensure a free press without intimidation or legal threats against those who are doing their jobs to seek truth for the public," stressed the Burma Human Rights Network.

In a time where Burma’s democratic reforms are increasingly questioned, freedom of the press is imperative for the country to advance to a freer and more prosperous society. While these freedoms appear to be eroding, it is urgent to increase the work to secure them in order to reach a better future. 

Aung Naing Soe is a freelance journalist born and based in Burma. He has previously covered Muslim issues including those of the Rohingya, who are typically demonized and treated as foreigners in Burmese media. Aung Naing Soe was a friend of U Ko Ni a Muslim lawyer and member of the National League for Democracy, who was assassinated in early 2017. His arrest comes at a time where the country has seen a sharp increase in arrests of journalists.

Burma Human Rights Network (BHRN) works for human rights, minority rights and religious freedom in Burma. BHRN has played a crucial role advocating for human rights and religious freedom with politicians and world leaders.