Myanmar’s outspoken former information minister on Thursday called for a review and retrial of the case involving two Reuters reporters sentenced to seven years in prison for breaching a law on state secrets — a ruling that human rights groups and media advocates have strongly condemned as a sham and a blow to press freedom.
Ye Htut, a former lieutenant colonel in the Myanmar Army who served as information minister from 2014 to 2016, said Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo should be retried on account of heavy pressure from the international community to release them, and that the case against them was handled improperly.
The two were sentenced on Sept. 3 after spending nine months in jail while they attended hearings on charges that they obtained confidential documents during their reporting on the killing of Rohingya villagers by security forces amid a crackdown in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
Police Captain Moe Yan Naing, a witness for the prosecution, testified during the pretrial hearings that a police brigadier general had ordered subordinates to set up the pair and arrest them for possessing state secrets for their work investigating violence against the Rohingya.
“When Police Captain Moe Yan Naing testified, we said something is wrong in this case,” Ye Htut told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “The basis for this case is wrong, and the judge didn’t try to fix it, but issued a decision based on this improper framework.”
“That’s why it has generated international pressure,” said Ye Htut, who also served as former President Thein Sein’s spokesman from 2013 to 2016.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo pleaded not guilty to the charges, arguing they were doing their jobs as reporters, did not collect or copy documents, and did nothing to harm the state’s interests.
Lawyers for the two journalists said they will file an appeal with a higher court.
RSF’s incident report
Ye Htut’s comments came days after Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) issued an “incident report” about the possibility of Myanmar’s ranking in its annual World Press Freedom Index sliding further on account of “grave violations of the freedom to inform since the start of the year.”
The group ranked Myanmar 137 out of 180 countries in its most recent report issued in April, six spots lower than the country ranked in 2017.
“There is now every chance that it will fall even further in next year’s index,” RSF said in its statement issued on Oct. 1.
It warned that authorities must take corrective action to prevent lower scores on environment and self-censorship, transparency, and media independence — three of seven key metrics used by RSF to determine rankings.
RFA cited the jail sentences that Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo received, saying they “capped a farcical prosecution.”
“The scheme that the military, police, and judicial system jointly concocted to detain the two journalists stretched credulity and showed the lengths to which the authorities were ready to go in order to trample on media independence,” the statement said.
The same month that the Reuters reporters received their jail sentences, former newspaper columnist Ngar Min Swe was sentenced to seven years in prison for sedition and ordered to pay a fine for criticizing Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi on social media.
RSF said the sedition law “was used in a completely opaque manner to impose a disproportionate seven-year jail sentence” on the writer.
The group also said that self-censorship is now the rule in Myanmar for journalists who don’t want to be charged with defamation for criticizing powerful figures and for outlets that don’t want to be shut down for broaching subjects that are off-limits.
Myanmar authorities banned broadcasts by U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia in June for refusing to refer to Rohingya Muslims as “Bengalis” as the government demands, because it views members of the unrecognized ethnic minority group as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
RSF also noted that a hostile environment for reporters, who have been banned from freely reporting in Rakhine state, extends to Shan and Kachin states where journalists are prevented from entering conflict areas.
The press freedom group called for the overturning of the convictions of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo and for their immediate release, the overturning of Ngar Min Swe’s conviction, the repeal of the Official Secrets Act and the sedition law, and the amending of Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Act, used to file defamation charges against journalists.
‘A lot of restrictions’
Commenting on RSF’s warning, Myanmar journalist and political activist Thiha Thway said that the sentencing of the Reuters reporters was a message from authorities that journalists cannot do investigative reporting.
“It's like we've been told that we will be at risk if we do,” he told RFA. “We have to do more self-censorship, and we now have more concerns and challenges. There will be even more [self-censorship] if we have more conflicts and problems due to religion and race.”
Monywa Aung Shin, a member of the Central Executive Committee of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), said it is lamentable that Myanmar's ranking will likely drop in RSF’s next press freedom index.
“We have a lot of restrictions to work on [eliminating] in the media field, including restrictions in the constitution,” he said. “The media must remind people about them, and the Information Ministry has to work on ensuring the right to information.”
Dozens of journalists have been arrested under the civilian-led government that came to power in 2016, earning the administration of Aung San Suu Kyi the wrath of rights groups for appearing to backpedal on press freedom after decades of stifling military rule in Myanmar.
In an interview with RFA in September, Ye Htut said the NLD believes that criticism of the government and its leaders by the media and civil society organizations (CSOs) damages its power and its chances of winning the next general elections in 2020.
“That’s why the current government’s relationship with the media and CSOs is getting worse,” he said.
Reported by Kyaw Htun Naing for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.