Myanmar Charges Reuters Journalists

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SHAYNA BAUCHNER |

A judge in Yangon formally charged two Reuters journalists for possessing confidential government documents in the latest blow to press freedom in Myanmar. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, detained for the past seven months during preliminary hearings, will now face trial for allegedly violating Myanmar’s colonial–era Official Secrets Act, which carries a prison sentence of up to 14 years.

Myanmar police officers escort Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo at the northern district court in Yangon. ©Getty Images

The judge decided to proceed to trial despite strong evidence for dismissal — witness accounts pointing to entrapment, indications of police misconduct in the investigation, and prosecution witnesses with contradicting testimonies.

“This is a black day for press freedom in Myanmar,” Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International’s director of crisis response, said in a statement. “The court’s decision to proceed with this farcical, politically motivated case has deeply troubling and far–reaching implications for independent journalism in the country.”

Western critics have pointed to the case as an example of how far Myanmar has to progress under the administration of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, noting the military still holds too much power.

“The authorities have turned to tactics long–favoured by past military juntas — locking up and prosecuting those exposing the truth,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

 

Judge decided to proceed to trial despite strong evidence for dismissal — witness accounts pointing to entrapment, indications of police misconduct in the investigation, and prosecution witnesses with contradicting testimonies

 

“Today’s decision renders the judiciary complicit in a farcical miscarriage of justice,” Matthew Bugher, Head of Asia Programme for Article 19, a UK–based human rights organisation that focuses on freedom of expression, said in an emailed statement.

Police captain Moe Yan Naing, who said that detained Reuters reporters were set up — outside the court room during a hearing of detained journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo in Yangon, Myanmar April 20, 2018. ©Reuters

“Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo took great personal risks to cast light on events largely hidden from the public’s view. Instead of dragging them through preposterous legal proceedings, the government should commend the journalists for their indispensable role in promoting accountability.”

 

Country’s long–repressed media environment, the new civilian administration under de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has cracked down on free speech. Since 2016, scores of cases have been filed against journalists and activists for perceived criticism of the government or military under a slew of repressive laws

 

The two journalists were detained in December 2017 after meeting with police officers who handed them papers in an apparent setup, since corroborated by several witnesses, including an officer who testified that the police were ordered to “trap” the journalists by planting “secret” documents on them.

In the months before their arrest, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had been investigating a massacre of 10 Rohingya by Myanmar security forces in September 2017 in Inn Din village, northern Rakhine State. The massacre was part of the military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing that drove more than 700,000 Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh. Myanmar authorities, who have denied extensive evidence of mass atrocities, appear to have targeted Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo because their reporting threatened the government’s tightly controlled narrative.

These 10 Rohingya victims kneeling before their execution with their hands tied behind their backs at Inn Din village in northern Rakhine State’s Maungdaw Township in September last year. ©Reuters

“The government can arrest us like this, waste our time in the court for many days, and stop us from being able to write news,” Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo wrote in a letter from prison. “But we want to tell them, right here, that they can never hide the truth.”

After an initial thaw in the country’s long–repressed media environment, the new civilian administration under de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has cracked down on free speech. Since 2016, scores of cases have been filed against journalists and activists for perceived criticism of the government or military under a slew of repressive laws.

The charges against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo for their uncovering of atrocities reflect more than just the dire state of free speech in Myanmar. They show the lengths the government will go to silence and punish those who expose its brutal ways.

The decision by the Yangon court sparked widespread outcry.

 

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo took great personal risks to cast light on events largely hidden from the public’s view. Instead of dragging them through preposterous legal proceedings, the government should commend the journalists for their indispensable role in promoting accountability

 

Posting on Facebook, the US Embassy in Yangon said it was “deeply disappointed” by the court’s decision. “‎The Myanmar authorities should allow the journalists to return to their jobs and families,” the post said. “Today’s decision is a setback for press freedom and the rule of law in Myanmar.”

Human rights charities, who have been seeking to highlight the plight of the two journalists, have also blasted the decision as having major implications on press freedom in the country. ■

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