The professional membership of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand is dismayed by the sentencing of two journalists, a local fixer, and their driver in Myanmar, to two months in prison after a drone was used near the parliament in Naypyitaw.

The four have unexpectedly been charged under the 1934 Burma Aircraft Act, which predates the appearance of viable drones by nearly 50 years.

Malaysian journalist Mok Choy Lin and Singaporean Lau Hon Meng, who were on assignment for the Turkish state broadcaster TRT, were arrested on Oct. 27, along with their local fixer, Aung Naing Soe, and their driver, U Hla Tin.

It is understood they can still be prosecuted under a 2012 import law, and will appear in court again on Nov. 16. They are facing charges of importing proscribed equipment into Myanmar -- an offence that can carry a sentence of up to three years in prison.

"We did not expect this charge," one of the defence lawyers told The Irrawaddy, a local media outlet. The legal team said it prepared a defence only for the illegal importation charge and noted that this is the first time the Burma/Myanmar Aircraft Act has been used in relation to flying a drone.

"The hearing was a judicial ambush begun and dealt with in 20 minutes," said one observer of Friday's court proceedings.

Drones are now widely used by journalists and others to obtain aerial videos, and their regulation is an issue that has been debated globally. Drones are openly on sale in Yangon, and while there are local restrictions on their use over specific locations like temples, their general use appears to have been accepted.

All four individuals remain in custody, sleeping on bare concrete floors. The foreign journalists have limited local language skills, adding to their isolation.

The driver and local fixer are unlikely to have been involved with bringing the drone into Myanmar, or to have been operating it. In view of this, the professional membership of the FCCT again urges the Myanmar authorities to release Aung Naing Soe and U Hla Tin immediately.

It also appeals to the authorities to treat Mok Choy Lin and Lau Hon Meng leniently, given the lack of clarity over the legality of drone use in Myanmar. Even if such use is judged illegal, it should not carry any further custodial sentence. The emphasis now should not be on punishment but on clarifying the law so that a similar situation can be avoided in future.


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