Lawi Weng, a reporter for the Irrawaddy news site, and two Democratic Voice of Burma journalists have been arrested near the eastern border with China in Shan State, where a rebel group is fighting the government.
There were arrested when they left territory held by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and charged under the colonial-era 1908 Unlawful Association Law, which carries a potential prison sentence of three years.
Since Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy took power last April, numerous journalists and activists have been jailed for criticising the government or the military.
“These arrests and detentions, and recent cases where editors were imprisoned, demonstrate that Burma is unsafe for reporters to work,” said Irrawaddy editor Aung Zaw. “The return of the climate of fear is very disturbing.”
NLD spokesman Win Htein said the reporters had no business being in the conflict zone without government permission.
“For media personnel, press freedom is a key need,” he told the MNTV national broadcaster. “For us, peace, national development and economic development are the priority, and then democracy and human rights, including press freedom.”
The three said they were in rebel-held territory to attend a drug-burning event to mark the International Day against Drug Abuse. Shan State is one of the world’s centres of opium farming, with the government and rebel groups fighting for control of the territory.
Lawi Weng was also reportedly there to investigate allegations of abuse by government troops of ethnic-minority villagers. A video appearing to show troops beating six men under interrogation has spread on social media.
Most of the prosecutions of journalists and activists have come under the 2013 Telecommunications Law that criminalises “defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening any person” online.
Of the 72 cases that have been brought using the law, seven were brought under the previous quasi-civilian government of Thein Sein and 65 under the supposedly democratic NLD, according to the Research Team for Telecommunications Law.
Myanmar also said it would refuse entry to members of a UN investigation focusing on charges of killings, rape and torture by the authorities against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State.
“If they are going to send someone with regards to the fact-finding mission, then there’s no reason for us to let them come,” said Kyaw Zeya of Suu Kyi’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“Our missions worldwide are advised accordingly,” meaning that visas would not be issued to the mission’s appointees or staff.