More than 100 Myanmar activists and media professionals rallied in Yangon on Wednesday, calling for the release of two Reuters reporters serving seven-year jail sentences for possessing classified government documents, on the first anniversary of their arrests.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested on Dec. 12, 2017, after two police officers handed them papers about security forces in northern Rakhine state, where a military crackdown targeting Rohingya Muslims was underway. The campaign of violence prompted an exodus of more than 720,000 Rohingya across the border and into Bangladesh.
After months of court hearings in Yangon, the reporters were convicted in September of violating Myanmar’s colonial-era Officials Secrets Act while reporting on the extrajudicial killings of 10 Rohingya by soldiers in a Rakhine village.
Journalists, civil society representatives, and political activists gathered near Yangon City Hall to press officials to free the two men, who are being held in Insein Prison on the coty's outskirts.
While some participants lit candles and released black balloons, others displayed placards with copies of the cover of the latest edition of Time magazine, which named the two journalists along with two other reporters as the publication’s annual “Person of the Year.”
Moe Thway of the youth political organization Generation Wave said calls for the reporters’ release continue to grow despite their detention.
“Every international organization, prime minister, and president around the world who has visited Myanmar has demanded their release,” he said. “[But] it’s like our country doesn’t care what the world says. Was the whole world wrong? Were those who were illegally trapped and arrested wrong?”
“This case has damaged the country’s reputation,” he said. “So, those who committed unjust actions and those who supported the actions are the ones who have committed an injustice.”
Holding out for their release
Wa Lone’s wife Pan Ei Mon, who attended the rally, said that she has been hoping for her husband's release since his arrest because the two journalists are innocent.
“Then they were tried, and I kept on hoping for his release throughout the trial,” she said. “I’m still hoping he will be released during the appeal of his sentence.”
Chit Su Ma, wife of Kyaw Soe Oo, said the two young men were only doing their jobs as reporters.
“It’s totally unfair to punish them with seven years’ imprisonment, because they are innocent,” she said. “I hope they will be released soon and return home.”
Lawyers for the journalists have filed an appeal of the convictions, based on evidence pointing to a police set-up.
“The appeals court will find many discrepancies and legal flaws in the lower court's ruling if they study it thoroughly,” said defense lawyer Than Zaw Aung. “So, if they find this and take it into consideration, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo can be freed.”
The hearing will take place on Dec. 24.
A chilling effect
Both domestic and international press freedom and human rights groups have harshly condemned the verdict, contending that the pair was framed by police officials and convicted on bogus charges.
One police witness during the trial testified that information from the documents had previously been published in newspapers, while another said a superior officer had ordered the set-up of the reporters.
The convictions of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have been a test case for press freedom under the government of state leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has said that their sentencing has nothing to do with freedom of expression.
“The fact that they remain in prison for a crime they did not commit calls into question Myanmar’s commitment to democracy, freedom of expression and rule of law,” said Reuters editor-in-chief Stephen J. Adler in a statement issued Wednesday.
“Every day they continue to be behind bars is a missed opportunity for Myanmar to stand up for justice,” he said. “The people of Myanmar deserve the freedoms and democracy they have long been promised, and Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo deserve to be returned to their families and colleagues immediately.”
Linda Lakhdhir, a legal advisor in the Asia division of Human Rights Watch who focuses on the criminalization of speech and assembly in the region, said in a statement on Wednesday that the case has laid bare Myanmar’s increasingly restricted state of press freedom.
“Their conviction in the face of strong evidence that the police handed them documents as part of a plan to trap and arrest them has sent a chill through the Myanmar media,” she said.
Lakhdhir called on Aung San Su Kyi to immediately request that President Win Myint grant Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo a full pardon and for the Myanmar parliament to amend the Official Secrets Act and other repressive laws so they conform to international human rights standards.
“Myanmar’s leaders need to stop making excuses and end once and for all the abusive laws being used to arrest and imprison journalists simply for doing their job,” she said.
The United States embassy in Yangon wrote on its Twitter account on Tuesday that after a year in prison, it is past time for the journalists to go home to their families.
“An independent press must be allowed to report freely in a democracy,” the post said.
Reported by Htet Arkar for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Nandar Chann. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.