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YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Three Myanmar journalists who reported on a drug-burning ceremony by ethnic rebels have been charged with violating a law that provides for up to three years’ imprisonment for people who help illegal groups, one of their colleagues said Wednesday.

Rights groups and journalists are protesting the men’s detention and the application of the law.

The three were detained Monday as they were returning from observing the ceremony held in northern Shan state by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army — an officially illegal organization — which is among several guerrilla groups fighting the Myanmar government.

Toe Zaw Lat, a senior journalist at the Democratic Voice of Burma, said two of his reporters, Aye Naing and Pyae Bone Naing, along with Lawi Weng of The Irrawaddy online news service have been officially charged under Unlawful Associations Act and have been jailed in the northeastern town of Hsipaw, where they will be brought before a court on July 11.

The law has been applied before to sympathizers and members of rebel groups, and also to some aid workers, but rarely, if ever, to journalists.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said the detained men “should be immediately freed and allowed to carry on with their work as journalists. Using the archaic Unlawful Associations Act to incarcerate journalists is an affront to democracy in Myanmar.”

The civilian government that took power last year under leader Aung San Suu Kyi is seen by many as being nearly as hostile to the media as the military regimes that preceded it.

“The impact of arresting these three journalists under the Unlawful Associations Act is not only arresting them but also a warning to all journalists not to report news from conflict areas,” said Toe Zaw Lat. “This is a signal to show that if the media report on things they (the authorities) don’t like, journalists will not be forgiven, especially when it comes to ethnic conflict topics.”

Zaw Htay, spokesman for President Htin Kyaw, placed blame for the arrests on the journalists.

He said journalists are supposed to inform security forces when they report in conflict areas, and have no special right to avoid the law. “If a journalist violated any law, he or she will have to face the charge,” he said.

“Whatever happened with this particular case is already done, and I only see that the authorities will do whatever needs to be done according to the law,” he added. “But this is just an example. Based on this example, the media should be more aware and act more cautiously in the future.”

Ethnic minorities have fought for decades in Myanmar for more autonomy. Many have reached provisional cease-fires with the government but several including the Ta’ang have not. Most fighting in recent years has been in northern Myanmar, where the Ta’ang are allied with the Kachin Independence Army and the Shan State Army – South.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has been pressing hard for a comprehensive peace agreement with all rebel groups, but talks have foundered.

“The space for journalists to do their critically important work is under threat as the authorities continue to invoke a slew of draconian laws to silence, arrest and imprison them and restrict access to areas where the military operates,” the London-based human rights group Amnesty International said.

“These arrests are a crude attempt to intimidate journalists by a military that cannot seem to abide even the faintest criticism. Fearful of any scrutiny of its role in northern Myanmar, where they stand accused of war crimes, the army is doing its best to stop journalists and other observers from accessing these areas.”