Myanmar prison official announced on Friday (29 December) that two foreign journalist and two local employees for Turkish state broadcaster TRT has been freed after completing a two-month jail sentence for flying a drone near Myanmar’s parliament thus violating an aircraft law in the country.
They are cameraman Lau Hon Meng from Singapore, reporter Mok Choy Lin from Malaysia, Aung Naing Soe, a local journalist who was interpreting for the pair, and driver Hla Tin.
They were released from a prison at Yamethin, near the capital Naypyitaw.
The quadruplet were arrested on 27 October when they were doing their assinments from TRT World television station. By that time, they were flying a drone and trying to shoot a documentary in Myanmar’s capital Naypyitaw near its Parliament building.
All four hoped to receive a fine, therefore, they confessed to fly the drone. However, they were instead sentenced to two months in jail under the colonial-era Anti-Aircraft Act.
They were also facing an additional charge for importing the drone until this week and the two foreigners were also facing immigration charges.
Aung Myo Chun, chief of Yamethin prison, said, “We released Aung Naing Soe and the crew at 7.20am today because immigration and police have dropped the charges. They have served their two-month prison sentence under the Anti-Aircraft Act.”
According to Reuters, a police officer said on Tuesday that he had been ordered to drop the charges because the four had not intended to damage national security and to improve Myanmar’s relations with the journalists’ home countries, Singapore and Malaysia.
Initially they were charged between three and five more years prison. However, they were freed from a jail north of the capital on Friday after the court dropped the additional charges.
Lawyer Khin Maung Zaw told AFP, “They were all released this morning at 7:00 am from Yamethin prison.”
A local photographer said the two foreign nationals left Yamethin prison by car, however, Aung Naing Soe and Hla Tin walked out of the prison compound.
Aung Naing Soe told Reuters by phone that the release was a surprise, saying, “We have been arrested unexpectedly, and now we are so glad to be unexpectedly released like this. We didn’t know that we would be released in the morning until last night.”
At least, 11 reporters have been arrested in Myanmar in 2017. Several have been released, however, two Reuters journalists remain in custody. They were arrested on 12 December and are facing up to 14 years in prison for allegedly possessing classified documents, thus violating the Official Secrets Act.
Their families told reporters at a news conference on Thursday that the reporters, Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, told them they were arrested almost immediately after being handed some documents by policemen who had invited them for a meeting.
Aung Naing Soe told AFP, “I also hope and demand that the other similar cases like us will be set free,” adding that authorities have not returned his crew’s phones, computers or drones.
The group arrest came amid tensions between Buddhist majority Myanmar and mostly Muslim countries like Turkey and Malaysia over Myanmar’s treatment of the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority.
The UN has also accused Myanmar’s army of waging an ethnic cleansing campaign against the minority, some 655,000 of whom have fled an army crackdown for Bangladesh since late August.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan accused Myanmar of genocide in the western state of Rakhine in early September, a charge that Myanmar denies. The UN has also accused Myanmar’s army of waging an ethnic cleansing campaign against the minority, resulting to some 655,000 of whom have fled an army crackdown for Bangladesh since late August.
TRT has not yet confirmed the subject of the documentary. However, it said that the reporters told Myanmar’s Ministry of Information about their filming plans in advance.
Their arrests deepened concerns about shrinking press freedoms under civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who came to power in 2016 after decades of outright military rule.