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By Antoni Slodkowski and Wa Lone
NAYPYITAW (Reuters) - Myanmar military arrested at least three reporters on Monday, after they covered an event organised by an ethnic armed group designated as an "illegal organisation".
The three reporters were arrested in Myanmar's northeastern Shan state, the army said in a statement, along with four other men returning from the territory controlled by the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), an ethnic militia in a stand-off with government troops.
The army identified the reporters by name and organisation but it did not identify the other four men.
The three reporters are from two media organisations publishing both in Burmese and English, the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) and the Irrawaddy. The media were among few organisations providing the world with independent coverage of Myanmar when it was a military dictatorship before the transition began in 2011.
The arrests are likely to increase fears that despite electing its first civilian government in about half a century in 2015 led by national heroine Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar reporters face increasing restrictions on freedom of speech.
"In any country around the world, journalists have to cover news from both sides of the conflict. We are doing our job. We don't think that is a mistake," Aye Chan Naing, chief editor of the DVB told Reuters by telephone.
Irrawaddy editors were not immediately available for comment.
Officials in Myanmar and Thailand burned illegal narcotics worth more than $800 million to mark the United Nations day against drug abuse and trafficking. The arrested reporters attended a similar event organised by TNLA on its territory.
The army said that the men had communicated with TNLA, which is "currently opposing the country's rule of law using arms". The army detained the men and handed them over to a local police station in the city of Lashio. The investigation is ongoing, it said.
The military did not specify what laws were broken, but Myanmar's colonial-era's Unlawful Association Act, which during the junta was used to stifle dissent, stipulates that people associating with illegal groups can face between two and three years in jail - and a fine.
Underscoring growing concerns over free speech, earlier this month over 100 reporters protested against laws seen as curbing expression when two senior journalists went on trial after the military sued them over a critical article.
Despite pressure from human rights bodies and Western diplomats, Suu Kyi's government has retained broadly worded laws decried by monitors as violating free speech and has not spoken out against increasingly frequent arrests of reporters and activists.
"Laws applied capriciously to journalists ... create a hostile atmosphere for the press and serve only to further stifle the freedom of expression," said Richard Weir, a Yangon-based analysts for watchdog Human Rights Watch.
"The recent spate of targeting journalists is a stark reminder that the tools of repression remain in place in Myanmar and the government rarely hesitates to wield them in order to silence its critics and opponents."
(Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)