COMMITMENT to rule of law and democratic freedom of speech under the government of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma (Myanmar) has been thrown into serious doubt after two journalists from the Reuters news agency were charged under the country’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act.
Having been detained for more than 200 days, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were officially charged by a Yangon court on Monday for reporting on the massacre of Rohingya Muslim villagers near the Bangladeshi border back in September 2017. If convicted the pair face 14 years’ imprisonment.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s investigation led to special report published by the news agency in February, detailing how 10 Rohingya men and boys were shot by soldiers, some hacked to death by Buddhist villagers. They were arrested in December in an apparent trap set by authorities.
Their case has been widely understood as a test of Burma’s nascent democracy, which has supposedly transitioned away from military rule under Suu Kyi’s popularly elected National League for Democracy.
“We are deeply disappointed that the court declined to end this protracted and baseless proceeding against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo,” said an official statement from Reuters President and Editor-in-Chief, Stephen J. Adler.
“These Reuters journalists were doing their jobs in an independent and impartial way, and there are no facts or evidence to suggest that they’ve done anything wrong or broken any law,” Adler said.
“They should be released and reunited with their families, friends, and colleagues. Today’s decision casts serious doubt on Myanmar’s commitment to press freedom and the rule of law.”
According to the pair’s lawyers, Burmese police planted allegedly secret documents on Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo moments before their arrest. The defence claims that their detention was “pre-planned and orchestrated by local police in response to their reporting about activities of security forces in the Rakhine State.”
The United States’ Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley echoed calls to release the men and let them return to their families.
Journalists “should never be unjustly targeted, threatened, or persecuted for simply doing their jobs”, said a statement from Haley which added the case raised “serious concerns” about the rule of law in Burma.
Today, a Burmese court charged Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo with violating the colonial-era “Official Secrets Act” for investigating and reporting on an army massacre of the Rohingya people. They will now face trial and a possible sentence of up to 14 years. pic.twitter.com/o5Z1ouASK6
— US Mission to the UN (@USUN) July 9, 2018
“Journalism is not a crime,” tweeted US Senator John McCain. “The charges against @Reuters reporters Wa Lone & Kyaw Soe Oo for exposing ethnic cleansing in #Burma are outrageous & politically motivated. The bogus charges should be dropped & these journalists should be released immediately.”
A European Union spokesperson said in a statement that it had “continuously” raised the issue with Burma’s government and “expects the charges against the two journalists prosecuted for merely exercising their rights to freedom of expression and carrying out their jobs to be dropped.”
The two should be reunited with their families and allowed to “resume their vital work”, it said.
Civil society organisations also widely condemned the continued prosecution of the reporters.
Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) secretary general Christophe Deloire said that the court’s decision to charge the men illustrated “a failed transition to democracy” and that the country’s judicial system still “follows orders”.
“As a result of the decision to proceed with this trial, despite the many inconsistencies and the undeniable evidence of the two journalists’ innocence that came to light in the preliminary hearings, the chances of seeing a free and independent press emerge in Myanmar have declined significantly,” said Deloire.
Burma is ranked 137 out of 180 countries on RSF’s World Press Freedom Index for 2018.
“This is a sad day for Myanmar’s fledging democracy,” said Shawn Crispin, senior representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in Southeast Asia in a statement.
“This outrageous ruling affirms that politics rather than the law or evidence are what matters in this case. The only way to reverse the damage is to release Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo immediately.”
Rights group Amnesty International also condemned the decision, calling it a “black day for press freedom” in Burma.
Tirana Hassan, Amnesty’s Director of Crisis Response said that “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.”
The UK-based Burma Human Rights Network’s executive director Kyaw Win said it showed “Burma remains an oppressive and undemocratic country even under Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s authority. This is sending a signal to other journalists that doing their jobs honestly and with integrity will be punished severely.”