Burma: Journalists’ ‘hammer blow’ guilty verdict could spell end of democracy
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Burma: Journalists’ ‘hammer blow’ guilty verdict could spell end of democracy

THE sentencing of Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo on Monday was the death knell for press freedom in Burma (Myanmar) and could spell the beginning of the end for the country’s fledgling democracy, experts say.

“This is very disappointing not only for the accused but for all of us, the lawyers, the press, the whole country,” defence lawyer Khin Maung Zaw told reporters outside the courtroom after the pair were sentenced to seven years in prison.

“It is bad for Myanmar, for democracy, for rule of law, and for the freedom of the press, and freedom of expression.”

The verdict has left rights group decrying the state of press freedom in Burma. And left local journalists fearing the heavy consequences of simply doing their job.

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The pair were arrested in December for allegedly violating the colonial-era Official Secrets Act for possessing classified documents. The defence argued they were the victims of a police setup in which an officer handed the pair the secret documents moments before they were arrested.

In the months leading up to their arrest, the two journalists were working on a report detailing the brutal murder of 10 Rohingya men and boys at the hands of the military.

The Tatmadaw (military) has since admitted wrongdoing and convicted the soldiers responsible.

“These are innocent men, what happened today is an injustice,” Reuters’ Regional editor for Asia, Kevin Krolicki, told reporters. “The government of Myanmar has a responsibility to do the right thing.”

‘Hammer blow’ for press freedom

Their sentencing was a “hammer blow” for press freedom in Burma, Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, told Asian Correspondent. The severity of the sentence is particularly worrying given the dire human rights situation in the country and the absolute necessity of independent journalists to shine a light on the wrongdoing, Robertson said.

“This verdict is aimed at both the two journalists as well as the wider world of Burmese journalists trying to hold the government and military accountable.

“This decision is a huge setback for freedom of the press.”

The hope that the newly elected civilian government, fronted by Aung San Suu Kyi, would improve the situation for journalists has faded fast.

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Following decades of military rule, the National League for Democracy (NLD) was elected in 2015 on a message of restoring rule of law and quashing government corruption.

For decades prior, the Nobel laureate regularly touted the value of a free press and its important role in a functioning democracy. But as the abuse of the Rohingya minority escalated and international criticism of her rule mounted, the de facto leader has retreated to denouncing unbiased press coverage and blaming “terrorists” for “a huge iceberg of misinformation.

Suu Kyi has also expressed personal condemnation of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. Her former friend and confidante, US diplomat Bill Richardson, told AFP she had referred to the two journalists as “traitors” during a heated exchange in January.

Political commentator Dr Yan Myo Thein believes press freedom in the country is at its lowest point and fears Monday’s verdict will only worsen the situation

“The tension between government and military, and the media might be escalated and that might be an indication that the press freedom in Myanmar plunges to the worst level even in the hands of majority rulers being elected by the free and fair election,” Yan told Asian Correspondent.

Wider implications

Diminished press freedom may not be the only consequence of Monday’s verdict, however, with wider implications likely to be felt throughout Burmese society; implications that could ultimately determine the fate of Burma’s fledgling democracy, Yan believes.

“Myanmar was a nation under rule by law for many decades. By undergoing democratic transformation, Myanmar is moving toward becoming a nation under rule of law,” Yan said.

“But by making journalists criminals and journalism a crime, Myanmar will not be pushed forward or changed in the right direction and the nation shall remain as a nation under rule by law rather than a nation under rule of law.”


Relatives of detained Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo wait for their verdict trial at Insein court Yangon, Myanmar September 3, 2018. Source: Reuters/Matthew Tostevin

SEE ALSO: Burmese press face threats and shame in reporting Rohingya crisis

The only way to change course is with a coordinated and decisive push by media organisations, the United Nations, governments, and NGOs to demand Burma quash the conviction and release both Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, says Robertson, who calls on the UN Human Rights Council, the UN Secretary-General and key members of the UN Security Council to act.

Without this decisive action from the international community, the Tatmadaw will continue to act with impunity.

Litany of human rights abuses

This is the third major strike against Burma’s human rights record in a week. Last Monday saw the release of a UN report accusing the military of genocide. A day later, a second report from rights group Fortify Rights detailed evidence of war crimes being committed in Kachin and Shan states.

There was hope that the intense international scrutiny of Burma’s military might push the government towards a not guilty verdict in an attempt to ease the mounting pressure. But that wasn’t to be.

According to Robertson, the court is under the effective control of the Tatmadaw.

“Once it became clear that securing a conviction in this case was a priority of the armed forces and government, it was just a matter of time before they were found guilty and sentenced to a long prison term,” he said.

Journalists left to live in fear

In the meantime, the Burmese press is left reeling after two of their own are sent down simply for doing their job. Among the community, the silencing message intended by the military has been received loud and clear.

“I’m not sure that I could report on sensitive issues over military and the government,” local journalist Naw Betty Han told Asian Correspondent.

“They showed the ending of journalists with the Reuters’ journalists’ case. It is a very effective [message] to all of us… I got the message that I might be arrested just for doing a journalist’s work.”

Betty, who says Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s verdict left her “heartbroken,” fears for her own safety after Monday’s verdict and isn’t optimistic about what the future holds, telling us she is “afraid to guess the future of press freedom in Myanmar.”

One person, however, still remarkably holds out hope.

“I have no fear,” Wa Lone shouted as he was led away from the courthouse in handcuffs. “I have not done anything wrong. I believe in justice, democracy and freedom.”