A Myanmar court ruled on Monday that two Reuters reporters charged with obtaining state secrets under a colonial-era law will go to full trial, a decision that prompted condemnation by local journalists and international groups who see the move as a blow to press freedom in the emerging democracy.
Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, pleaded not guilty in Yangon’s Northern District Court on the grounds that they were doing their jobs as reporters, did not collect or copy documents, and did nothing to harm the state’s interests.
The two were formally charged on Jan. 10, roughly a month after they were arrested on the outskirts of Yangon on Dec. 12 following dinner with two police officers who gave them papers related to a brutal military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
They have been detained in Yangon’s Insein Prison while they attended pretrial hearings that lasted six months. Their lawyers and others argued the charges against them should be dropped after one policeman — a witness for the prosecution — testified that a senior officer ordered his subordinates to set up the reporters.
But at a pretrial hearing on July 2, prosecutors argued that the two should be tried because documents found on them and on their mobile phones were deemed confidential and top secret.
They reporters, who have maintained their innocence, face up to 14 years in prison if found guilty. Their next court date is July 16.
“Although we have been charged, we are not guilty,” Wa Lone told reporters outside the courthouse on Monday. “Everybody knows that we covered news about violations of human rights in Rakhine according to journalistic ethics. We will not retreat, give up, or be shaken by this. Injustice will never win out over us.”
Defense attorney Khin Maung Zaw also said the reporters adhered to journalist ethnics in doing their jobs as they dug up details of a massacre of 10 Rohingya men and boys in a village in Rakhine that was part of a larger crackdown by Myanmar security forces last year that drove more than 700,000 Muslims across the border to Bangladesh
“We will do our best to defend them at future hearings to show that the reporters didn’t have any intention of harming the interests of the nation or government,” he said. “They didn’t collect secret information and distribute it; and they did their jobs in accordance with journalism ethics.”
Tharlon Zaung Htet, a member of Myanmar’s Committee for the Protection of Journalists, said the court ignored the testimony of Police Captain Moe Yan Naing who said that Police Brigadier General Tin Ko Ko ordered officers to hand over the classified documents to the reporters as a pretext for their arrest.
“I feel that it is very unfortunate for our country and judicial system,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “It is also the beginning of the end of our democratic reform. It is a black day for the Myanmar media.”
Ohn Kyaing, vice chairman of the Myanmar Press Council said, “The charges against these reporters are very heavy, and they were submitted too quickly before a court of law, and they are now out of our reach.”
‘Big warning to all reporters’
Htet Khaung Linn, a journalist with Myanmar Now, a non-profit news agency funded by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, noted that Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi told Japanese broadcaster NHK in June that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested because they violated the Official Secrets Act and that the country’s judiciary would decide their fate.
“I don’t want to say that it is a coincidence, [but] we have two presidents under the NLD government and media freedom is getting worse and worse,” he said, referring to Aung San Suu Kyi’s position as state counselor which she created so she could be above the president after her National League for Democracy Party came to power in late March 2016.
Zayar Hlaing, editor of the investigative magazine Maw Kun, published by the Myanmar Observer Media Group, said, “Although we call the current government a democratic government, it is still not satisfactory for those in media, and this situation has become shameful in the [eyes of the ] international community.”
Kyaw Min Swe, 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, said that though the outcome of the case so far has not been fair, the reporters can always file appeals with various courts.
“This is unfair to these reporters,” he said. “There should be a better way to solve this case. The method the authorities are using right now is the one they always use, which is not good for the country and for people’s dignity.”
Journalist Thiha Thway, the Myanmar correspondent for NHK, said the fact that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo will go on trial because of information found on their phones that prosecutors said was confidential or top secret does not bode well for other journalists.
“It is a huge message and big warning to all reporters,” he said. “I feel shaken by it. This [Official Secrets] Act should be amended to not contain such terms. It’s like authorities are using them to take advantage of reporters instead of removing or amending them.”
Defense lawyers have pointed out that almost all the information on the reporters' phones was from online and published news.
‘Setback for press freedom’
The international community responded to the court’s decision with warnings that media freedom in Myanmar continues to be on the decline.
“The court decision today to press charges against Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo under the Official Secrets Act of 1923 threatens fundamental freedoms, a free media, and the public’s right to media freedom in Myanmar, Frederica Mogherini, the European Union's chief of foreign affairs and security policy, said in a statement.
The EU expects the Myanmar court to drop the charges against the two reporters who were exercising their rights to freedom of expression and doing their jobs, and to immediately release them, she said.
The United States embassy in Yangon also expressed disappointment with the court’s decision.
“We are deeply disappointed by today's court decision to proceed with charges against journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo for alleged violation of the Official Secrets Act,” said a statement issued Monday on the embassy’s Facebook page.
“The Myanmar authorities should allow the journalists to return to their jobs and families,” it said. “Today's decision is a setback for press freedom and the rule of law in Myanmar.”
The Geneva-based International Commission for Jurists also called on prosecutorial authorities to drop charges against the pair.
“Authorities should immediately end criminal proceedings against these men who appear to have been lawfully doing their job as investigative journalists,” said Sean Bain, the NGO’s legal adviser in Yangon, in a statement issued Monday.
“The prosecution has failed to provide credible evidence of any wrongdoing throughout six months of hearings,” he said. “It is therefore hard to imagine a valid legal rationale for allowing ongoing prosecution of the journalists.”
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) blasted the decision as a blow to press freedom.
“The court's decision to charge these two journalists is a hammer blow to freedom of the media in Myanmar and shows just how fragile the country's democratic reforms are,” he said in a statement issued Monday.
“The Official Secrets Act is a legal outrage from a bygone colonial era that should have been abolished by Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD government in the early days after they assumed power, not maintained and used to intimidate journalists,” he said.
Also on Monday, HRW and 45 other NGO and faith-based organizations sent a letter to the U.S. Congress calling on it to adopt legislation to shore up targeted sanctions against Myanmar military commanders implicated in human rights abuses in Rakhine.
The U.S. and United Nations have said that the atrocities committed against the Rohingya by military forces, including killings, torture, rape, and arson, amounted to ethnic cleansing, and the U.S., E.U., and Canada have imposed sanctions on those responsible for overseeing the violence.
‘A black day’
London-based Amnesty International called the decision to press ahead with the trail “a black day for press freedom in Myanmar.”
“The court’s decision to proceed with this farcical, politically motivated case has deeply troubling and far-reaching implications for independent journalism in the country,” said Tirana Hassan, Amnesty’s director of crisis response, in a statement on Monday.
“Charging them [Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo] under this draconian law — even after widespread national and international condemnation — is a clear sign that the authorities are intent on silencing critical voices,” she said. “It also serves notice to other journalists working in the country that speaking out comes with serious consequences.”
Stephen J. Adler, president and editor-in-chief of Reuters, also expressed displeasure with the ruling.
“We are deeply disappointed that the court declined to end this protracted and baseless proceeding against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo,” he said in a statement on Monday. “These Reuters journalists were doing their jobs in an independent and impartial way, and there are no facts or evidence to suggest that they’ve done anything wrong or broken any law.”
“They should be released and reunited with their families, friends, and colleagues,” he said. “Today’s decision casts serious doubt on Myanmar’s commitment to press freedom and the rule of law.”
Reported by Aung Theinkha and Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.