Lawyers for two Reuters reporters filed an appeal on Monday against the seven-year sentences they were handed by a Myanmar court for violating the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, in a much-criticized case that human rights groups and media advocates have strongly condemned as a sham and a blow to press freedom.
A court in Yangon found Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo guilty in September of possessing classified government documents while reporting on the extrajudicial killings of 10 Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state’s Inn Din village during a brutal military crackdown in 2017 — an act to which the Myanmar military later admitted. More than 720,000 Rohingya fled the violence as soldiers murdered, tortured, raped, and burned their way through Rohingya villages.
The verdict has drawn widespread criticism from press freedom and human rights groups, which contend that the pair was framed by police officials and convicted on bogus charges.
Thant Zaw Aung, an attorney representing the two reporters, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that he is hopeful about a good outcome after the High Court reviews the trial court’s decision and considers the case’s flaws.
“This year has been a bad year for journalists, worse than other years,” he said. “Most charged journalists are not free on bail, and this [reflects] the government’s will for them.”
The appeals process will likely take months as Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were arrested in December 2017, continue to serve their sentences in Insein Prison on the outskirts of Yangon.
During the pair’s nine-month hearings, a policeman called as a prosecution witness testified that a superior officer ordered subordinates to set up the reporters by planting the documents on them. Another police witness said that information in the documents had already been publicly disseminated by the media.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo testified that they were merely doing their jobs and did not knowingly possess any secret documents.
Burden of proof
Stephen J. Adler, president and editor-in-chief of Reuters, said the appeal was filed because the trial court’s ruling wrongly convicted the reporters as spies by ignoring evidence of a police set-up, due process violations, and a failure by prosecutors to prove key elements of the crime.
“Contrary to Myanmar law, it shifted the burden of proof from the prosecution to Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo,” he said in a statement.
“Now is the time for Myanmar to uphold its stated dedication to rule of law, freedom of the press, and democracy by ordering the release of our colleagues, whether on appeal or by granting the families’ request for a pardon,” Adler said.
Also on Friday, more than 50 human rights organizations, including PEN America, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Reporters Without Borders, issued an open letter to State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi calling on her and Myanmar authorities to immediately release the two reporters, reject their convictions, and review and change all laws used to restrict freedom of expression in the country.
“We believe that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo should never have been arrested in the first place, let alone prosecuted, convicted, and imprisoned,” the letter said. “Their trial, which was already manifestly unfair, was made more so by the repeated failure to uphold key tenets of the rule of law and to build a convincing evidence-based case against these journalists.”
Other restrictive laws
The case of the Reuters journalists along with others who have been charged by officials with defamation or unlawful association have raised doubts about Myanmar’s transition to full democracy under Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) government.
In September, Aung San Suu Kyi said Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were not jailed because they are journalists, but because the court determined that they had violated the Official Secrets Act, and that they had the right to file an appeal.
“A transition period should include press freedom in any country,” said Aung Myo Kyaw from the Yangon office of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a nonprofit human rights organization based in Mae Sot, Thailand.
“Then members of the government can know what is going on around the country through the media,” he said.
“Charging journalists under Article 66(d) and the Official Secrets Act should be ended in our country,” he said, referring to an article under Myanmar’s Telecommunications Act that prohibits the use of the telecom network to defame people. Officials have routinely file lawsuits under the article to silence their critics, especially journalists.
“All political prisoners should be free as well,” Aung Myo Kyaw said. “That’s why the AAPP has urged the government to free all media people and political prisoners.”
Myanmar journalist Chit Win Maung said the government doesn’t respect journalists who increasingly fear being arrested and charged under vaguely-worded statutes.
He pointed to the case of three journalists from Myanmar’s Eleven Media Group arrested and detained in October on charges of committing offenses against the state for publishing an article with a critical focus on Yangon government spending. They were later freed on 10 million kyats (U.S. $6,300) bail.
“[This] is something the government shouldn’t have done because these journalists were doing their jobs to give people correct information,” Chit Win Maung said. “Any media [professionals] can make mistakes while they are doing their jobs. But, it is wrong to arrest them whenever government officials get angry after reading an article they published.”
RFA reporter arrested
In yet another case against a journalist, an RFA reporter in central Myanmar’s Magway region was charged on Nov. 3 under Article 68(a) of the Telecommunications Act for posting a question on Facebook.
Thein Han, chief of Kamayut township police station, filed the lawsuit against Myint Zaw Oo, also known as Zaw Tu, for asking if it was true that a bomb had exploded on the campus of Yangon University.
Myint Zaw Oo told RFA that he was traveling in China and had read on the social media platform WeChat about a bomb explosion that killed one person and injured two others, so he wanted to try to confirm it. A few hours later, he learned that the report was false and deleted his post.
The reporter said he was surprised to find out that a police officer had filed a lawsuit against him for merely asking a question.
“My post was an honest question asked out of curiosity,” he said. “It was not spreading incorrect news.”
“Now that asking honest questions is a chargeable [offense] under the Telecommunication Act, I’m wondering if we as journalists are losing our freedom,” he said.
Thein Han told RFA that because Yangon University’s security is very important, a police team went there to check out the bomb report, which turned out to be false.
“I filed a case against Myint Zaw Oo under Article 68(a) because he posted incorrect news, and his post scared people and [created] instability,” he said, adding that he has yet to inform the Myanmar Press Council (MPC) about the case.
The council facilitates discussions and negotiations when problems arise between government authorities and the media.
Kyaw Min Swe, executive director of the Myanmar Journalism Institute and former editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper The Voice, who was charged with online defamation in 2017 for an article that mocked Myanmar’s military, noted that that police sometimes skip many legal steps when it comes to arresting journalists.
In the case of the arrests of the three Eleven Media Group journalists, for instance, Myanmar government officials — including President Win Myint — and media professionals said authorities should have filed a complaint under the country’s Media Law, which carries fines for those determined to be guilty of offenses related to their responsibilities and media ethics, rather than file a lawsuit in court.
Aung Khant, program manager of Athan (Voice), a Myanmar group that advocates for freedom of expression, said the police should not have charged Myint Za Oo for posting a question.
“Police shouldn’t charge him like this,” he said. “Most charges under the Telecommunication Act are related to freedom of expression.”
Reported by Kyaw Thu and Wai Mar Tun or RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.