A Myanmar judge on Monday jailed two Reuters journalists for seven years after finding them guilty of breaching a law on state secrets, drawing widespread criticism for the Southeast Asian country already under a cloud for a brutal crackdown on Rohingya Muslims.
Yangon northern district judge Ye Lwin said Wa Lone violated the colonial-era Official Secrets Act when they obtained confidential documents during their reporting on the killing of Rohingya villagers by security forces in Rakhine state.
"The defendants ... have breached Official Secrets Act section 3.1.c, and are sentenced to seven years," the judge said, according to Reuters News Agency.
Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, had pleaded not guilty earlier this year, arguing 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.
At the time of their arrest, the two reporters were working on a story about the murders of 10 Rohingya civilians from Inn Din village in northern Rakhine state, and the news agency later produced a gripping account of the killings by soldiers and ethnic Rakhine Buddhist neighbors.
In April, a police officer called as a witness for the prosecution gave sworn testimony that a police brigadier general had ordered subordinates to set up the reporters and arrest them for possessing state secrets for their work investigating violence against the Rohingya.
Following an investigation of the incident, the Myanmar military sentenced seven officers and soldiers of other ranks involved in the extrajudicial killings of the 10 Rohingya men to 10 years in prison.
"Today is a sad day for Myanmar, Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, and the press everywhere," Reuters editor in chief Stephen J Adler said in a statement.
"We will not wait while Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo suffer this injustice and will evaluate how to proceed in the coming days, including whether to seek relief in an international forum."
"What I want to say to the government is: you can put us in jail, but do not close the eyes and ears of the people," Reuters quoted Kyaw Soe Oo as saying.
Wa Lone, in handcuffs and flanked by police, told supporters and reporters after the verdict not to worry, Reuters reported.
"We know we did nothing wrong. I have no fear. I believe in justice, democracy and freedom," he said.
Khin Mg Saw, one of the pair’s defense lawyers said: “What we had asked for is justice but it was denied. And this is a message for you guys too – ‘Keep quiet. Don’t get nosey.’”
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said the verdict "sends a message to all journalists in Myanmar that they cannot operate fearlessly, but must rather make a choice to either self-censor or risk prosecution".
ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights Chairman Charles Santiago, a Malaysian lawmaker, called the verdict “a travesty of justice which undermines press freedom and the judicial system in Myanmar.”
“These two men are being ripped from their families for no good reason,” he added in a statement.
“The outrageous convictions of the Reuters journalists show Myanmar courts’ willingness to muzzle those reporting on military atrocities,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These sentences mark a new low for press freedom and further backsliding on rights under Aung San Suu Kyi’s government.”
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement that “the prosecution’s case was marked by inconsistencies and irregularities, including conflicting official accounts and evidence of police misconduct.”
Inside Myanmar there was sympathy for the two reporters, whom many observers believe were set up by police.
“I think it’s meant to deter objective reporting of the Rakhine issue. I’m sure they want to cover up the entrapment of the two reporters,” said Myint Kyaw of the Media Council.
“It’s a scary message to all media,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
Aung Thane, a lawyer and Upper House Member of Parliament for the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), said charging the journalists for handling official secrets “is not a natural and true way of working on a case. “
“These reporters did their jobs by sending news from somewhere to another place. Is that secret?”
Disappointment in Aung San Suu Kyi
The Reuters verdict follows an embarrassing week for the Myanmar government of de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calling on Wednesday for accountability for Myanmar’s “horrendous persecution” of Rohingya Muslims by security forces that drove more than 700,000 members of the minority group to Bangladesh, after deadly attacks by a Muslim military group on Aug. 25, 2017.
The day before, the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, working under a mandate from the U.N.-backed Human Rights Council, issued a damning report that called for Myanmar military leaders, including Commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, to be prosecuted for genocide against the Rohingya.
On Monday, social media giant Facebook said it was removing 18 Facebook accounts, one Instagram account, and 52 Facebook pages linked to the Myanmar military .
“Myanmar’s leadership should immediately quash the verdicts and release Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo,” Adams said.
“These convictions won’t hide the horrors against the Rohingya from the world – they merely reveal the precarious state of free speech in the country and the urgent need for international action to free these journalists.”
Myanmar Deputy Information Minister Aung Hla Htun told RFA “I am personally sorry for them, but they still can appeal.
“The two reporters can appeal by discussing with their lawyers. The Information Ministry can’t interfere with the judiciary.
NLD’s Spokesman Myo Nyunt declined to comment on the ruling, citing the “separation of power.”
“If reporters think the decision is not fair, they can appeal at higher courts. As I am a former political prisoner, I am really sorry for them,” he said.
Malaysian lawmaker Santiago said the verdict is a disappointment in a region where the media is under pressure from authoritarian rulers.
“Initial high hopes that a Myanmar under Aung San Suu Kyi would side itself with those countries pushing for greater democracy and freedom in Southeast Asia are becoming increasingly dim,” he said.
Reported by Kyaw Htun Naing, Nay Rein Kyaw, Htet Arkar and Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane and Khet Mar. Written in English by Paul Eckert.