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Drone-flying camera crew freed from jail in Myanmar

December 29, 2017

Foreign and local journalists jailed for flying a drone near Myanmar’s parliament were released Friday after spending two months in prison, in a case that spiked alarm over an increasingly dangerous climate for reporters in the country.

Lau Hon Meng from Singapore and Mok Choy Lin from Malaysia were on assignment for Turkish state broadcaster TRT when they were detained in late October along with Myanmar journalist Aung Naing Soe and driver Hla Tin.

The crew was shooting a documentary in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw.

Expecting to receive a fine, they confessed to flying the drone but were instead sentenced to two months in jail under Myanmar’s aircraft act.

On Friday morning the group was released from a jail north of the capital after a court dropped additional charges that carried between three and five more years in prison.

“They were all released this morning at 7:00 am from Yamethin prison,” lawyer Khin Maung Zaw told AFP.

He added that the two foreign journalists were being taken directly to Yangon international airport for flights out of the country, while the two Myanmar nationals have already been reunited with their families.

Aung Naing Soe, the local reporter who spent his 27th birthday behind bars, said he hoped other detained journalists in Myanmar would soon be released too.

At least 11 reporters have been arrested in the former junta-run country in 2017.

– Press freedom concerns –

Several have been released but two Reuters journalists remain in custody and are facing up to 14 years in prison under the draconian colonial-era Official Secrets Act for allegedly possessing classified documents.

Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27 — Myanmar nationals who had been reporting for the news agency on a military-led crackdown on Rohingya Muslims — were arrested a fortnight ago after they were invited to meet police for dinner.

They were remanded in custody for a further two weeks after an emotional reunion with family members at a brief court hearing on Wednesday — the first time the pair had been allowed access to relatives, colleagues or lawyers.

“I also hope and demand that the other similar cases like us … will be set free,” Aung Naing Soe told AFP, adding that authorities have not returned his crew’s phones, computers or drone.

The TRT crew’s arrest came with ties more strained than ever between Myanmar and Turkey, whose president has lambasted the mainly Buddhist nation over its persecution of Rohingya Muslims.

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.

In September Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Myanmar was incubating “Buddhist terror” that amounted to genocide.

TRT has not confirmed the subject of the documentary but said 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.

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.