A judge will decide next week whether two Reuters news agency reporters charged with obtaining state secrets will go to trial, after hearing final arguments on Monday from defense and prosecution lawyers during the pretrial phase of the case.
Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were arrested on the outskirts of Yangon on Dec. 12 shortly after they had dinner with two police officers who gave them documents related to a brutal military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in western Myanmar's Rakhine state.
They were formally charged on Jan. 10 and face up to 14 years in prison if found guilty.
Judge Ye Lwin will issue a decision on July 9 on whether the journalists will go to trial for allegedly violating the country’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act for their coverage of the conflict in Rakhine, where security forces and local Buddhists are accused of violently driving more than 700,000 Rohingya civilians over the border into Bangladesh in response to a deadly attack by a shadowy Rohingya militant group.
The prosecution team argued on Monday that the two should be tried because the documents found on them and on their mobile phones ranged from confidential to top secret, said defense lawyer Khin Maung Zaw.
Prosecutors also said that a report the two were working on at the time of their arrest about the military’s massacre of 10 Rohingya men and boys in northern Rakhine’s Inn Din village has damaged Myanmar’s image, Khin Maung Zaw said.
“We argued that the reporters’ unintentional, momentary possession of papers, wrongfully planted on them by police as part of an orchestrated trap, and without any knowledge of their content, cannot be a basis for criminal charges under the Official Secrets Act,” he said, as quoted by Reuters.
Police Captain Moe Yan Naing, a witness for the prosecution, testified in April that the two journalists were set up by Police Brigadier General Tin Ko Ko who ordered his subordinates to hand the classified documents as a pretext for their arrest.
The whistleblower was sentenced to a year in Yangon’s Insein Prison under the Police Disciplinary Act for giving classified information to the reporters, and authorities ordered his wife and three children to move out of a police housing complex.
Prosecutors have also called other police officers to provide testimony in the case.
“When prosecutors started filing their reports [for the case], there was no mention of information on their [the reporters’] phones in the charges,” Khin Maung Zaw said. “None of the police testified about it either.”
“Twenty-three witnesses who are police officers and IT experts started talking about the information on their phones,” he said. “It is not major evidence; it is circumstantial evidence. Also, almost all information from their phones is from online and published news, such as the pope’s schedule [for his visit to Myanmar last November]. These things are not secret.”
Wa Lone said that he and Kyaw Soe Oo were trying to cover news from Rakhine and had contacted police based on factual information they had received.
“We did not betray our country,” he said. “Because the prosecutors can’t prove this was a betrayal, we believe that the court will make a fair decision for our nation, for law and order, and for justice.”
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have been held inside Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison while attending weekly court hearings.
On Sunday, Stephen J. Adler, president and editor-in-chief of Reuters, said in a statement, “At this critical juncture, we hope that the court will decline to charge Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo and will order their prompt release.”
“Freedom of the press is essential in any democracy, and to charge Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo under these circumstances, without any proof of their having done anything unlawful, would seriously undermine Myanmar’s constitutional guarantee of free speech,” he said. “We remain optimistic that the court will thoroughly consider the evidence before it and bring this proceeding to a close as quickly as possible.”
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement on Monday, calling on authorities to immediately release the journalists and drop the case against them.
“Myanmar authorities set up and arrested the two Reuters journalists because of their work exposing a massacre of Rohingya by the military,” said HRW Asia director Brad Adams. “The authorities have turned to tactics long-favored by past military juntas — locking up and prosecuting those exposing the truth.”
Khin Maung Zaw said that he and his clients read HRW’s statement and found it to encouraging.
“We hope for the best and are prepared for the worst,” he said about the next court date. “We hope not to have a miscarriage of justice on July 9.”
The Reuters reporters’ trial has become a landmark press freedom case in Myanmar, where rights groups and journalists say media freedom is declining under the civilian government of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) and under the country’s powerful military which operates with impunity.
A nationwide survey of 200 journalists conducted between December 2017 and April 2018 by Free Expression Myanmar, an advocacy group campaigning for freedom of expression and legal reform, gauged journalists’ opinions on issues critical to media freedom and found that they believe that their freedom to report in conflict areas has declined, and that legal, physical, and psychological violence towards them has increased.
The survey also found that journalists believe there is little evidence that the government and courts are trying to address either the violence or the decline in media freedom.
When the NLD came to power in 2016, many believed that the government under State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi would undertake further measures to increase press freedom in the developing democracy.
“The Reuters trial is a test case of press freedom under Aung San Suu Kyi’s government,” Adams said.
“If the Reuters journalists are charged, authorities will be following in the footsteps of the military junta,” he said. “Foreign governments should call for justice for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo and an end to the arrest and imprisonment of journalists for doing their jobs.”
Reported by Aung Theinkha and Khet Mar for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.