Defamation, unlawful association charges against 6 Myanmar journalists dropped by military

YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar's military on Friday (Sept 1) dropped charges against six journalists facing trial over offences ranging from defamation to unlawful association, saying it wanted to work with the media in the interests of the country and its people.

The legal action had sparked fears over curbs on free speech during Myanmar's transition from decades of military rule under a government led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, following a landmark 2015 election win.

The military decided to "forgive and drop charges" against the media in an effort to "work together for the interest of the citizens and the country", it said in a statement.

The army had to take legal action because the coverage had "disgraced the image, the dignity and the activity of the Tatmadaw", it added, referring to the armed forces by their Myanmar name.

Charges were dropped against three reporters arrested in late June for covering an event organised by the Ta'ang National Liberation Army, an ethnic militia engaged in a stand-off with government troops.

They were charged under a colonial era law against "unlawful association", which rights watchers said has long been used by Myanmar authorities to arbitrarily arrest and detain people.

"It's injustice from the very beginning," Mr Pyae Phone Aung, one of the reporters arrested on June 26 in northeastern Shan state, told Reuters by telephone from the court where his trial was being held. "We journalists were just doing our work, but we were charged and spent more than 60 days in jail."

It was not immediately clear when the three journalists would be released.

Charges were also dropped against three more reporters, whose articles critical of the military had attracted defamation charges on the basis of several laws, including a telecoms law that rights monitors say restricts free speech.

Twenty journalists have been charged or arrested under the controversial law since Ms Suu Kyi's government took power, the advocacy group Research Team for Telecommunications Law said.

Despite pressure from human rights groups and Western diplomats, her government has retained the broadly worded law, and has not spoken out against the increasingly frequent arrests of reporters and activists.

The military retains control of the police, key ministries and a quarter of lawmakers' seats. The courts also still lack independence, some analysts say.

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