PROTESTERS took to the streets in Yangon, Burma (Myanmar) on Sunday to fight for press freedom and demand the release of two jailed Reuters journalists, amid a growing concern for censorship and freedom of expression in the fledgling democracy.
“A massacre is not a state secret,” read one banner held by one of the dozens of protestors. It references an investigation the journalists, Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone, were working on before they were arrested in December that uncovered mass killing of the Rohingya minority.
Two weeks ago, the two journalists were sentenced to seven years in prison for violating the colonial-era Official Secrets Act after they were allegedly found in possession of confidential government documents.
Right to information protest in downtown #Yangon. Crowd calls for the immediate release of Reuters journalists #WaLone and #KyawSawOo@drzarni@AJEnglish @BBCWorld @UN @IntlCrimCourt @Refugees @hrw @realDonaldTrump @antonioguterres pic.twitter.com/deiUqnIFFt
— Lovely Oumor Khan (@lovelyOumor786) September 16, 2018
There was outcry from rights groups and fellow journalists across the world. Human Rights Watch told Asian Correspondent it was a “hammer blow” to press freedom in the country.
“We are very angry. We are disappointed in the new government. Shame on them,” activist Maung Saung Kha, 25, told AFP.
“We condemn the sentence … they should be released.”
The crowds gathered at Maha Bandula Park in downtown Yangon on Sunday afternoon. They carried black balloons with the faces of the two journalists on them. They were released into the sky as part of the protest.
The group of activists and journalists called for a right to information as concerns grow that the nascent democracy is reverting to the restricted tactics used by the former military junta prior to democratic elections in 2015.
Journalists and activists protests in Yangon today calling for the release of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo and Press Freedom in #Myanmar.#StandForThePressFreedom#FreeWaLoneKyawSoeOo pic.twitter.com/cGe9oZZNpX
— SHAMIM (@ShamimShamimpal) September 16, 2018
De facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi was once regarded as the defender of free expression and democratic rule, but has come under fire in recent months for her failure to speak out in the face of injustice.
On Thursday, while at the World Economic Forum, Suu Kyi defended the jailing of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.
The Nobel Laureate insisted their imprisonment was justified and that the case had “nothing to do with freedom of expression”, claiming they “were not jailed for being journalists” but for breaking the law.
There was hope she may step in and pardon the journalists as international pressure on her has been ratcheting up in recent months.
Weeks before their arrest, Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone were working on an investigation that uncovered the mass killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim at the hands of the military.
— Matthew Tostevin (@TostevinM) September 16, 2018
The incident has since been proven and the military has taken responsibility.
The journalists’ defence team argued they were the victim of a police setup as a result of their journalistic work. Police Captain Moe Yan Naing even admitted to being party to the setup in court, saying he was directed by Police Brigadier General Tin Ko Ko, who led the internal probe.
The pair are expected to appeal the conviction but the process could take months, if not years.