The Nay Pyi Taw drone case: More than meets the eye?

Foreign journalists have used drones in Myanmar and not been arrested, raising speculation over the real reasons for the recent jail sentences imposed on a Singaporean, a Malaysian and two citizens by a court in the capital.

By SITHU AUNG MYINT | FRONTIER

ON NOVEMBER 10, a court in Nay Pyi Taw sentenced two foreign journalists and their Myanmar interpreter and a driver to two months’ jail for trying to use a drone to take aerial photos of the Union Hluttaw. They were sentenced under the 1934 Burma Aircraft Act, though police had initially said they were being investigated for breaching the 2012 Export and Import Law for illegally importing the drone. The defendants were handcuffed when they attended hearings at Zabuthiri Township Court. It was disturbing to see journalists treated like this for trying to do their jobs. This week I would like to take a look at this case.

Increasing numbers of foreign journalists began visiting and working in Myanmar after the Union Solidarity and Development Party government took office in 2011 and lifted restrictions on media freedom, including pre-publication censorship.

The reforms enabled foreign news agencies to open offices in Myanmar. Some news agencies are known to have used drones. The foreign journalists arrested in Nay Pyi Taw are not the first to have brought drones into the country to use in their work.

This raises questions about the Nay Pyi Taw case. Why were they arrested and jailed when other journalists have used drones but not faced legal action? Why were they treated differently?

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The journalists, Malaysian Ms Mok Choy Lin, 47, Singaporean Mr Lau Hon Meng, 44, were working on assignment for Turkey’s state broadcaster, TRT, when they were arrested in Nay Pyi Taw on October 27, along with their interpreter Ko Aung Naing Soe, and driver, U Hla Tin. At the time of their arrest, they had not used the drone to film the Hluttaw.

A check of the images on the drone camera’s SD cards showed only scenic footage of Bagan. If the journalists were doing nothing wrong, police should have warned them that using a drone to film the Hluttaw was prohibited and taken no further action. There have been incidents in Yangon involving foreign visitors who tried to use a drone to film the Shwedagon Pagoda but were only stopped and cautioned by police.

There have been many cases where foreign journalists accused of breaching the law have been deported. Why this time were they jailed?

A possible reason is that the two foreign journalists were working for TRT. Muslim-majority Turkey has been more outspoken than most countries about the violence that began in northern Rakhine State in late August. In early September, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the violence amounted to the “genocide” of the area’s Muslim population, of whom about 620,000 have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh.

Because of his comments, the military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs and the Myanmar Police Force appear to believe that Turkish media reports on the crisis could only be one-sided. This is one possible reason why two journalists working for a state-run Turkish news agency were arrested and sentenced to a prison term.

Given the current situation in the country, it is also worth mentioning that the two journalists’ interpreter, freelance photo-journalist Aung Naing Soe, is a Muslim. He has worked as an interpreter for foreign news agencies, to which he has also sometimes filed reports. After he was arrested on October 27, police searched his home in Yangon’s Mingalar Taung Nyunt Township and seized his memory sticks.

During the 15 days he was in custody, from October 27 to November 10, Aung Naing Soe was not allowed to see a lawyer or have family visits. He was repeatedly questioned by police about his work as a journalist, including when and where he has travelled, whom he has interviewed and the foreign media organisations to which he has provided news.

Perhaps the police were seeking information that they hoped to use to charge Aung Naing Soe with other offences and keep him in jail.

Taking all into consideration, the Nay Pyi Taw drone case raises two questions: Do the Ministry of Home Affairs and the police want to suppress the media, or are they discriminating against Muslims working in the media?

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