Myanmar court jails two Reuters journalists for seven years
Pair jailed for illegal possession of documents while reporting on violence against Rohingya
A court in Myanmar on Monday found two Reuters journalists guilty of violating a colonial-era “official secrets” act, concluding a trial that fuelled concerns about the country’s commitment to press freedom and the rule of law.
The court sentenced Wa Lone (32) and Kyaw Soe Oo (28) – both Myanmar citizens who work as reporters for the news agency – to seven years of prison after convicting them of illegal possession of official documents, an offence that carries a maximum sentence of 14 years.
The men were arrested in December while reporting a story on the Myanmar military’s violent crackdown on minority Rohingya Muslims in the country’s northern Rakhine state. They have been held in Yangon’s notorious Insein prison ever since.
Governments and human rights groups have condemned the case brought against them, which has come to be seen as a defining moment for Myanmar’s troubled democratic transition under its de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
“Today is a sad day for Myanmar, Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, and the press everywhere,” said Stephen Adler, Reuters’ president and editor in chief. “These two admirable reporters have already spent nearly nine months in prison on false charges designed to silence their reporting and intimidate the press.”
The US embassy in Yangon said that the conviction of the two men was “deeply troubling for all who support press freedom and the transition toward democracy in Myanmar”, and that there had been “clear flaws” in the case against them.
The two men entered not-guilty pleas when they were formally charged in July.
“I have not done anything wrong,” a handcuffed Wa Lone told a crowd gathered outside the court on Monday after the verdict was announced, and before he was driven back to prison. “I believe in justice, democracy and freedom.”
Kyaw Soe Oo said: “You can put us in jail, but do not close the eyes and ears of the people.”
Human Rights Watch said the convictions heralded a return to the media repression seen during Myanmar’s half century of military rule. According to press watchdog groups, arrests and prosecutions of journalists have soared since Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, took power in 2016.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were at the time of their arrest on December 12th working on a story about a suspected mass grave in northern Rakhine state, the site of a security crackdown against the Rohingya last year that sent more than 700,000 members of the minority fleeing for their lives to Bangladesh.
The men were invited to meet policemen at a beer garden on the outskirts of Yangon, where they were presented with documents and then arrested. Myanmar’s information ministry said at the time that they had “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media”.
Reuters subsequently published an article based on their reporting about the slaughter of 10 Rohingya captives by security forces and Buddhist villagers and their burial in a grave in the village of Inn Din, northern Rakhine. The investigation was widely praised, and remains one of the most detailed reconstructions of the mass atrocities human rights groups and witnesses said were carried out in the months after the crackdown began in August 2017.
Myanmar jailed several people in connection with the massacre.
A week ago a report by a UN fact-finding mission concluded that Myanmar’s top military generals should be prosecuted for genocide in connection with the military operation against the Rohingya, as well as crimes including torture, murder, rape and enslavement in Rakhine as well as in the Kachin and Shan states.
The UN said that Myanmar’s government had little scope to control the army’s actions, but criticised Aung San Suu Kyi for failing to use her “moral authority” or position as de facto head of government to stem or prevent the events in Rakhine.
Myanmar dismissed the UN report as false, and has justified the crackdown on the Rohingya as a legitimate security operation against militants it calls “terrorists”. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018