Myanmar is jailing journalists for truthful reporting. It must respect the facts and free the reporters

  • Stephen J. Adler says two Reuters reporters have been unjustly jailed in Myanmar for exposing a mass murder. In defending the convictions, Aung San Suu Kyi has failed to uphold the rule of law based on facts
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 November, 2018, 12:04am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 November, 2018, 12:33am

In Myanmar, as everywhere, facts have power. It was the gruesome facts uncovered by two of our reporters for Reuters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, that led to their being framed, arrested, tried and, in September, handed a draconian seven-year prison sentence. Soon afterwards, Myanmar’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, vigorously defended the unjust convictions and called on those who disputed the verdict to explain how there had been a miscarriage of justice.

This column – and the appeal we have filed – answers that call. Here are the facts:

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority based in Rakhine state, in western Myanmar, a majority-Buddhist country. Last year, a military crackdown sent more than 700,000 Rohingya fleeing to refugee camps in Bangladesh. The United Nations has accused the Myanmar government of ethnic cleansing; Myanmar says its operations in Rakhine were in response to attacks on security forces by Rohingya insurgents.

Last December, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were investigating the role of the military and the police in the deaths of 10 Rohingya men and boys in a Rakhine village; a village elder had given our reporters photographs documenting the mass murder. One showed 10 men and boys kneeling in a field; another showed them in a mass grave, hacked and shot to death. Dozens of people who had been near the murders described what had happened, as well as the burning and looting of Rohingya homes by security forces. Being skilled reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo interviewed everyone they could: not just the fleeing Muslims but also Buddhists, the police and other security forces.

The shocking evidence they found was indisputable. This is the virtue of on-the-ground journalism practised by reporters who speak the local language, follow strict rules of independence and objectivity, and know their beats. This type of reporting, which is at the heart of Reuters’ work in the 166 countries where we operate, can provide proof of facts in ways that punditry or second-hand accounts simply cannot. Indeed, the Myanmar authorities were forced to admit that the massacre had occurred, even as they prosecuted our journalists for uncovering it.

Rohingya refugees revel in the new-found right to wear trousers

Their arrest was an obvious set-up, aimed at unmasking Reuters’ sources and deterring us from publishing the account of the massacre. Intimidation was severe: The reporters were hooded and brought to a secret interrogation centre, where they were kept handcuffed, continuously interrogated, threatened and denied sleep. Officers forced Kyaw Soe Oo to kneel for hours when they found the photographs of the killings on his phone. Two weeks passed before their families, lawyers or we at Reuters knew where they were. Once we made contact with them and completed their reporting, we published the explosive story, with the reporters’ full support.

For eight months, with our reporters still behind bars, a court in Yangon heard what passed for a prosecution case. The arresting officer testified that he had burned his records. Another witness read notes he had scribbled on his hand so that he could, by his own admission, remember how to testify.

Then came the unexpected, heroic moment when one police officer testified that a brigadier general had ordered an inferior officer to plant papers on Wa Lone and arrest him. Despite that testimony, the prosecution continued; the officer was himself arrested and sentenced to a year in prison.

International observers have seen the farcical trial for what it was: an attempt to punish our journalists and dissuade other reporters from covering events in Rakhine state. Diplomats from many nations, including the United States, Britain, Canada, Norway and Australia, have spoken out against the lack of due process and the rule of law, and the stifling of a free press in a country that has been promised democracy.

True lies: fake photos found in Myanmar army’s book on Rohingya

But so far, global outrage hasn’t changed anything. Aung San Suu Kyi claimed that the trial had nothing to do with press freedom and that the convictions were legitimate under the Official Secrets Act, a colonial-era law that bars the collection of secret documents to aid an enemy. The overwhelming evidence is to the contrary: that the police planted the documents in question on our journalists, whose only intent was to report truthfully.

We have appealed against their sentence, pointing out the many egregious legal and factual errors committed by the trial court. We would expect their convictions to be vacated, if the facts are to be respected.

But these, too, are facts:

Nothing prevents Aung San Suu Kyi from granting the families’ request for a pardon for the two husbands and fathers, even while an appeal is pending. Both men have spent nearly a year in jail – not for committing a crime, but for performing a public service. Given the facts of the case, a pardon would correct a severe injustice and uphold the rule of law, not detract from it, and demonstrate the country’s commitment to press freedom.

It is time to affirm not only the facts of this case but the value of facts themselves – to declare our certainty that some things are true and others are not. We must reject the cynical and dangerous idea that everyone is entitled to their own facts. We can see where this has got us in Myanmar and elsewhere. And we need to reaffirm the essential role of a free press in uncovering facts.

Suu Kyi becomes first person to lose honorary Canadian citizenship

Journalists, being people, are imperfect. But journalism, done right, serves a high public purpose. It produces transparency in markets, holds governments and businesses to account, gives people tools to make well-informed decisions, uncovers wrongdoing, inspires reforms, and tells true and remarkable stories that move and inspire.

Pardoning Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo would reaffirm the government’s commitment to those ideals and renew the world’s hope – and that of the two courageous, patriotic reporters – for a transformed, unified Myanmar.

Stephen J. Adler is the president and editor-in-chief of Reuters