The verdict – seven years for violating a colonial-era Official Secrets Act – which a Yangon court meted out against two local journalists working for Reuters, must have been welcome news for Myanmar’s ruling military and the police.
But, equally predictably, the harsh sentence was immediately condemned by international human rights organizations and press-freedom advocacy groups.
The two journalists, Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28 were detained in December 2017 while working on a story about the killing of Rohingya Muslim civilians in Rakhine State. After meeting a police officer in Yangon and allegedly being given some internal police documents, they were promptly arrested in the street outside by other police who said the two journalists were “behaving suspiciously.”
They were searched – and the police found the documents. Then, in April this year, police captain Moe Yan Naing, a prosecution witness, told the court that he had been ordered by a police brigadier general to entrap Wa Lone and his colleague by giving them what was described as “secret documents.” The police captain was subsequently sentenced to a year in prison for violating Myanmar’s Police Disciplinary Act and his family was thrown out of their police housing.
Amnesty International has described the verdict as “appalling” and Human Rights Watch said in a statement that it was politically motivated and “heralds a return to the media repression seen during military rule.”
Likened to Unity Journal case
Local journalists in Yangon, for their part, made comparisons with a similar case in 2014, when four journalists and their editor were sentenced to 10 years imprisonment with hard labor also for violating the 1923 Official Secrets Act. The newsmen, from a small, local publication called The Unity Journal, had managed to sneak into a top-secret defense factory and there, they claimed, uncovered a production site for chemical weapons.
But investigations by other journalists and defense analysts showed that the journalists were wrong. The facility they had sneaked into was a missile factory and not where chemical weapons were produced. Even so, and despite the seriousness of the case – they had actually violated the law and were guilty of at least trespassing, the five ended up being released under a presidential pardon in April 2016.
Yangon-based Myanmar journalists, therefore, believe it likely that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo will be released before they have to serve their full sentence. But that is the best case scenario.
Local journalists also say that the overall press freedom climate has deteriorated over the past few years with libel and defamation cases being brought against independent media and individual journalists being threatened by unidentified thugs.
In July last year, three Myanmar journalists were detained after covering an event hosted by an ethnic rebel army in northern Shan State. They were charged under another colonial-era law, the 1908 Unlawful Associations Act, but later released after the charges were withdrawn by the military.
The Reuters case has attracted more international attention than previous cases, partly because it involves a foreign news agency, but also given the nature of their reporting: atrocities committed against the Rohingyas, which has received worldwide attention.
There has also been a very strong human aspect to the case. Wa Lone’s wife, Pan Ei Mon, gave birth to the couple’s first child in August, and Kyaw Soe Oo’s wife Chit Su Win carried their three-year-old daughter to the court, where the child sobbed “Papa.”
Even if the two Reuters journalists may not have to remain in prison for the full seven years, the sentence has sent a strong signal to journalists in the country. Self-censorship is likely to become more common. “It’s no longer worth taking the risk of doing critical, investigative reporting,” a local journalist in Yangon said.
Others, who were enthusiastic about their newly-won freedom in 2011 and 2012, have either left the profession or are looking for other jobs. And this case has made the situation even worse.
Stephen J. Adler, Reuters editor-in-chief, said in a statement after the verdict that “Today is a sad day for Myanmar… Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, and the press everywhere.”
‘Bid to muzzle reporting on Rohingya crackdown’
The case is seen as an attempt to muzzle reporting on last year’s crackdown by Myanmar’s security forces on the Muslim Rohingya minority in Rakhine state and likely to fuel further international outrage a week after the army was accused of genocide, AFP said.
Army-led “clearance operations” drove 700,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh, carrying with them widespread accounts of atrocities – rape, murder and arson – by Myanmar police and troops.
The reporters denied the charges, insisting they were set up while exposing the extrajudicial killing of 10 Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine village of Inn Din in September last year.
They told the court they were arrested after being invited to dinner by police in Yangon, who handed them documents. As they left the restaurant, the pair were detained for possessing classified material.
But Judge Ye Lwin was unmoved by their testimony. “The culprits intended to harm the interests of the state. And so they have been found guilty under the state secrets act,” he told the packed court. “They are sentenced to seven years in prison each.”
Kyaw Soe Oo’s wife wept after the judge delivered the verdict. As they were led to the waiting prison van the handcuffed pair, both Myanmar nationals, gave brief but defiant statements on the court steps.
Defense lawyer Khin Maung Zaw said an appeal would be lodged as soon as possible against the verdict, which Reuters denounced as based on “false charges”.
– with reporting by AFP