A Myanmar court on Wednesday refused to drop a case against two journalists from Reuters news agency accused of violating the country's Official Secrets Act for their work investigating violence against Rohingya Muslims by the military in Rakhine state – a day after the country’s army jailed soldiers for committing the murders the reporters had documented.
Thet Oo Maung, also known as Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were formally charged on Jan. 10 with obtaining state secrets while reporting on a military crackdown on the Rohingya in northern Rakhine. They face up to 14 years in prison if found guilty.
Police arrested the pair on Dec. 12 on the outskirts of Yangon shortly after they had dinner with two police officers who gave them documents about the violence which has driven nearly 700,000 Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh since August 2017.
At the time of their arrest, the two reporters were working on a story about the brutal murders of 10 Rohingya civilians from Inn Din village in Rakhine’s Maungdaw township. The news agency later produced a gripping account of the killings.
Although the Myanmar government had repeatedly rejected allegations of wanton killings, the country's military commander-in-chief’s office announced on Tuesday that seven officers and soldiers of other ranks involved in the killing of those 10 Rohingya had been sentenced to 10 years in prison.
The villagers were shot or hacked to death by soldiers and ethnic Rakhine Buddhist neighbors who dumped their bodies in a mass grave in early September. Their remains were discovered three months later.
The extrajudicial killings were part of the military’s crackdown on the Rohingya, who also bore the brunt of torture, rape and arson at the hands of soldiers during the crackdown in what United Nations officials have called a campaign of ethnic cleansing, if not genocide.
Lawyers representing the journalists filed the motion for a dismissal in late March, arguing that there was insufficient evidence to support the charges and inconsistencies in witness testimony.
Khin Maung Zaw, one of the lawyers representing the reporters, said the judge rejected the motion because eight of the 25 witnesses called in the case still need to testify.
“There might be some important witnesses in these eight,” he said. “That’s why the judge said he was rejecting the case.”
But with the sentencing of the military officers and soldiers involved in the Inn Din incident, the reporters’ families say they expected the court to drop the charges against them.
“We have always expected their freedom, and everybody knows their case is not fair,” said Wa Lone’s wife Pan Ei. “I want authorities to release them as soon as possible. I am getting so tired of pretending to be OK with this situation when I see him.”
A Myanmar military investigation team led Lieutenant General Aye Win of the army commander-in-chief’s office interrogated 21 officers and other soldiers, three members of Myanmar Police Force (MPF), 13 members of a security force, six departmental personnel, and six residents of Inn Din village, about the killings, according to reports by military-run media agencies on Tuesday.
In an extremely rare move in Myanmar, the team concluded that the murders of 10 Rohingya civilians, referred to as “Bengali terrorists,” without legal arrest, were extrajudicial killings.
Four army officers involved in the murders were dismissed from military service and sentenced to 10 years in a civilian prison with hard labor, while three others were demoted to private, dismissed, and sentenced to 10 years in jail, military-run media said.
Authorities are taking legal action against the MPF members and civilians who were involved in the crime, the reports said.
“The soldiers responsible for the Inn Din massacre were already sentenced to 10 years in jail,” Wa Lone told the media after his hearing. “But we, who reported about it, are facing 14 years in jail. Is that fair?”
“We report to unearth the truth, and we are being sued,” he said. “Where is the truth for us? Where is democracy and freedom?”
Kyaw Soe Oo repeated the sentiment, saying “The murderers were sentenced only to 10 year imprisonments. Is this democracy?”
The two reporters are been held in Insein prison on the outskirts of Yangon while they attend court hearings. Their next court appearance is scheduled for April 20.
‘They just did their jobs’
Myanmar media professionals blasted the judge’s decision, maintaining that the two reporters were framed by police.
“We don’t think reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo committed what they are being charged with,” said freelance journalist Myo. “They are journalists. They just did their jobs. It is not a crime.”
Nyein Chan Naing, regional officer of the European Pressphoto Agency, said the decision not to dismiss the charges is unfair.
“The reporters didn’t break into a police station and get the documents,” he said. “The policemen handed them the documents. We can’t say they violated the Official Secrets Act.”
Tharlon Zaung Htet, a member of Myanmar’s Committee for the Protection of Journalists, agreed that the decision is unfair.
“The commander-in-chief’s office announced yesterday that the soldiers and officers who killed the 10 Muslims were sentenced to 10 years to jail,” he said. That means it happened. The incident was true.”
“What the reporters wrote about that case wasn’t incorrect,” he said. “That’s why we hoped they would be freed today,” he said.
‘Miscarriage of justice’
New York-based PEN America called the judge’s decision to continue prosecuting the journalists a “miscarriage of justice.”
“Myanmar’s prosecutors are engaged in a politically motivated effort to punish the crime of journalism,” Suzanne Nossel, the organization’s chief executive officer, said in a statement issued on Wednesday.
“Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested in the course of compiling a rigorous, objective, and graphic exposé of irrefutable brutality,” she said. “Their arrest and imprisonment is a black mark on Myanmar’s nascent democracy. Reflecting the country’s refusal to reckon honestly with the crisis in Rakhine and denial of the essential role of the press in a free society.
PEN America, which in February awarded Wa Lone and Kyaw Saw Oo its PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award designed to honor writers imprisoned for their work, called for the charges against the pair to be dropped and for them and others to be allowed to freely report in Rakhine state.
On Feb. 8, Reuters published a report of the events that led to the killing of 10 Rohingya men, including two teenagers, from Inn Din village, whom it said were buried in a mass grave after being hacked to death or shot by Buddhist neighbors and soldiers. The report contained the bylines of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.
The next day, the Myanmar government shrugged off the report, saying that the foreign media is “hurting our work” restoring stability to the region.
The decision not to drop the charges against the reporters came the same day that Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s social welfare minister, met with a few dozen Rohingya refugees at Kutupalong displacement camp in southeastern Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district. It was the first visit to the camps by a Myanmar cabinet member.
Win Myat Aye told the refugees that their repatriation to Myanmar was a priority, while they in turn presented him with a list of demands regarding their voluntary return.
His entourage was met by protesters, who unfurled a banner calling him a collaborator in and denier of genocide against Rohingya in Rakhine state, and chanted calls for justice. Police tried to disperse them, but others, including children, joined the protest.
Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed in November to repatriate refugees who want to return to Rakhine, though the program has not yet gotten underway because of various delays.
Reported by Aung Thein Kha and Thiri Min Zin for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.