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Myanmar judge jails Reuters journalists for seven years sparking international outcry

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who have been found guilty of breaching the country’s official secrets act, had been investigating extrajudicial killings of Rohingya by the military in Rakhine state at the time of their arrest

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 September, 2018, 12:23pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 September, 2018, 8:42pm

Two Reuters journalists were jailed on Monday for seven years for breaching Myanmar’s official secrets act during their reporting of the Rohingya crisis, in a case that has drawn outrage as an attack on media freedom.

“As they committed an offence under the state secrets act, they are sentenced to seven years in prison each,” judge Ye Lwin told the court.

Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, had pleaded not guilty to violating the colonial-era act, an offence punishable by up to 14 years in prison. They contended they were framed by police after exposing extrajudicial killings of Rohingya Muslims by the military in Rakhine state.

The verdict was postponed from a week ago because the presiding judge was ill.

The case has drawn worldwide attention as an example of how press freedom is suffering under the government of Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Her taking power in 2016 had raised hopes for an accelerated transition to full democracy from military rule, but she has since disappointed many former admirers.

Demonstrators call on Myanmar to release Reuters journalists

“What happened today threatens to undermine the rule of law and freedom of press that democracy requires,” said Kevin Krolicki, Reuters’ regional editor for Asia. He called the verdict “heartbreaking.”

Stephen J. Adler, Reuters editor-in-chief, denounced the charges as “false” and “designed to silence their reporting and intimidate the press”. “Today is a sad day for Myanmar, Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, and the press everywhere,” he said in a statement.

[The case] has struck a hammer-blow to the rule of law in Myanmar.
British Ambassador Dan Chugg

In her first day on the job, new UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said she was “shocked” at the sentences.

“I think the information they gave on the massacre was of public interest. So I will urge the Myanmar government to release them as soon as possible, immediately,” the former Chilean president said.

In a statement, the US Embassy in Yangon called for the journalists’ immediate release, saying “the clear flaws in this case raise serious concerns about rule of law and judicial independence in Myanmar, and the reporters’ conviction is a major setback to the Government of Myanmar’s stated goal of expanding democratic freedoms”.

British Ambassador Dan Chugg, who was in court for Monday’s verdict, said the case has “struck a hammer-blow to the rule of law in Myanmar”.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo both testified they suffered from harsh treatment during their initial interrogations. Their several appeals for release on bail were rejected. Wa Lone’s wife, Pan Ei Mon, gave birth to the couple’s first child in Yangon on August 10, but Wa Lone has not yet seen his daughter.

The two journalists had been reporting on the brutal crackdown by security forces on the Rohingya in Rakhine and investigating the killings of 10 Rohingya men when they were arrested last December. Some 700,000 Rohingya fled to neighbouring Bangladesh to escape the violence targeting them after attacks by Rohingya militants killed a dozen members of the security forces.

Investigators working for the UN’s top human rights body said last week that genocide charges should be brought against senior Myanmar military officers over the crackdown.

Reuters says Myanmar held its journalists for probing execution of Rohingya Muslims

The accusation of genocide was rejected by Myanmar’s government, but is the most serious official recommendation for prosecution so far. Also last week, Facebook banned Myanmar’s powerful military chief and 19 other individuals and organisations from its site to prevent the spread of hate and misinformation in connection with the Rohingya crisis.

Dozens of journalists and pro-democracy activists marched on Saturday in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, in support of the reporters. But in the country at large, with an overwhelming Buddhist majority, there is widespread prejudice against the Rohingya, and in the government and military, there is near-xenophobic sensitivity to foreign criticism.

Myanmar’s courts are one of the country’s most conservative and nationalistic institutions, and the darkened political atmosphere had seemed unlikely to help the reporters’ cause.

The court earlier this year declined to stop the trial after an initial phase of presentation of evidence, even though a policeman called as a prosecution witness testified that his commander had ordered that documents be planted on the journalists. After his testimony, the officer was jailed for a year for violating police regulations and his family was kicked out of police housing.

Other testimony by prosecution witnesses was contradictory, and the documents presented as evidence against the reporters appeared to be neither secret nor sensitive. The journalists testified they did not solicit or knowingly possess any secret documents.

UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar Knut Ostby said the UN was “disappointed by today’s court decision”.

“The United Nations has consistently called for the release of the Reuters journalists and urged the authorities to respect their right to pursue freedom of expression and information,” he said. “Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo should be allowed to return to their families and continue their work as journalists.”

Reporting by Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, The Guardian