Two Reuters journalists have each been sentenced to seven years in prison after they were found guilty of breaching the official secrets act in Myanmar. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and its affiliate the Myanmar Journalist Association (MJA) condemn the sentences and criticise the Aung San Suu Kyi-led Myanmar government for “failing to protect journalists investigating human rights abuses”.
The September 3 verdict will have severe and far-reaching implications for press freedom in Myanmar after a court used the colonial-era Official Secrets Act to jail Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, for alleged breaches of the act.
The court convicted the men under section 3(1)(c) of the 1923 Official Secrets Act, which carries a punishment for anyone who “obtains, collects, records or publishes or communicates to any other person any secret official … document or information” that may be “useful to an enemy.”
The two Reuters journalists have been incarcerated in the notorious Insein Prison since their arrest in December 2017 after being set up by police with a promise of ‘official leaked documents’. This followed their extensive investigation into war crimes against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Northern Rakhine State, specifically the September 2017 massacre of 10 Rohingyan men and boys, with strong allegations that connected responsibility to the Myanmar army leadership. The Ministry of Information released a statement the day after their arrest stating the two journalists had illegally acquired documents with the intention to share them with foreign media.
The Myanmar Journalists Association (MJA) said today’s verdict was disturbing for press freedom and the rule of law in Myanmar and also a threat and intimidation to all media.
The MJA said: “The court’s decision is bad for the country, it is bad for democracy, it is bad for freedom of expression. Nobody benefits from this. It shows to the world that there is no press freedom in Myanmar which is walking on the democracy platform.”
The IFJ said: “Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were doing nothing more than what good reporters do – investigate abuses, killings and rape against civilians by the country’s powerful military. This is a failure of the courts and Myanmar’s government, with a justice system being manipulated to punish journalists and send a dire warning to other reporters that press freedom comes at a very, very heavy price.”
The Myanmar judge Ye Lwin, in his sentencing, denounced both Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo with his disparaging comment that the reporters “tried many times to get their hands on secret documents and pass them to others. They did not behave like normal journalists."
Myanmar’s military has admitted the atrocity took place and, in a rare turn against impunity, seven soldiers were sentenced to jail with hard labour in May with sentences of ten years for their part in the killings.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s lawyer stipulated the pair were framed by the police, as punishment for exposing the massacre. Meanwhile, international human rights groups, media advocates, UN, EU, US, Canada and Australia have persisted in their calls for the acquittal of the two Reuter journalists.
Reuters’ editor-in-chief, Stephen J Adler, in a media statement said. “Today is a sad day for Myanmar, Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, and the press everywhere.”
The 1923 colonial era Official Secrets Act is severe and frequently used by the Myanmar military to exert power and control over journalists and media associations. The Act was drafted by the British colonial government in 1923 to imprison anyone sharing governmental information. The British Government replaced their act in 1989 after admitting it violated freedom of expression. In Myanmar, the draconian act continues to carry a maximum prison sentence of 14 years.
The jailing of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo comes a week after a damning UN report called for the Burma military to be investigated by the International Criminal Court. The report accused the Burma military of genocide of the Rohingya living in Rakhine state and said the military were “killing indiscriminately, gang-raping women, assaulting children and burning entire villages.” It also condemned leader Aung San Suu Kyi for taking a passive position and not using her position as “head of government, nor her moral authority, to stem or prevent the unfolding events in Rakhine state.”
Press freedom groups and the journalists have maintained that no substantive evidence had been presented in the charges laid. Yet the pair were denied bail for over eight months. Earlier this week, journalists marched in protest in Yangon against the pair’s ongoing plight.
The MJA said the men should be free to return to their families and their work.
The IFJ said: “Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo remain victims to an entrapment scam by police. Their arrest and persistent detention is deplorable violation of international rights, raising concern about the increasingly oppressive authorities in Myanmar silencing critical expression. This verdict demonstrates just how the military apparatus pressure to repress critical voices has been overbearing on the courts and restricted their ability to adjudicate impartially.”
On 11 January 2018 a Myanmar court rejected the appeal of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.
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