An international media watchdog group on Friday reiterated its call for the immediate release of two Myanmar journalists from Reuters news agency detained for the past five months on charges of obtaining state secrets, despite recent court testimony by a policeman who said authorities set them up in a sting operation.
Thet Oo Maung, also known as Wa Lone, and Kyaw Soe Oo were taken into custody on Dec. 12 on the outskirts of Yangon shortly after they had dinner with two police officers who gave them documents related to a brutal military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state. They were formally charged on Jan. 10 and face up to 14 years in prison if found guilty.
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.
“The evidence of the innocence and professionalism of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo is overwhelming, so it is incomprehensible and unacceptable that these two Reuters journalists are still being held five months after their arrest,” said Christophe Deloire, secretary-general of Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF), in a statement.
“It is time to end this judicial farce,” he said. “Continuing to hold them despite inconsistencies in the testimony, fabrication of evidence, and procedural violations constitutes judicial persecution and points to a crude manipulation of the judicial system by the security agencies with the aim of deterring further investigative reporting on the army’s actions in Rakhine state.”
“We call on Aung San Suu Kyi’s government to free these two journalists at once and to guarantee press freedom throughout the country,” Deloire said.
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.
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.
RSF, which has issued a petition for the journalists’ release, has previously blasted the Myanmar government for press freedom violations resulting from the army crackdown in northern Rakhine during which thousands of Rohingya died and nearly 700,000 others fled to safety in neighboring Bangladesh.
The organization, along with domestic and international press groups, has called on the government and army to allow independent media to report in Rakhine where the United Nations and United States have said “ethnic cleansing” has occurred.
Myanmar dropped six places in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index and is now ranked 137th out of 180 countries, not only because of the crackdown on journalists trying to investigate the Rohingya crisis but also because of the roughly 20 journalists prosecuted last year, many of them under Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Act which criminalizes online defamation.
In recent years, local and international rights groups have called on Myanmar to amend or rescind repressive media laws and allow journalists to cover conflict areas, not only in Rakhine, but also in Shan and Kachin states.
Repeal of Section 66(d)?
On Friday, Aung Hla Htun, deputy minister of Myanmar’s Ministry of Information, said the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) government is considering repealing Section 66(d) and other laws widely seen as repressive.
“We have some legislation that is unfriendly to the media,” he told a press conference in the capital Naypyidaw during which he discussed the NLD’s accomplishments during its second year in power. “Some are newly written laws, and some have existed since the colonial era.”
“We will amend and abolish those that we should,” he said, adding that the government is considering whether it should amend Section 17(1) of Unlawful Associations Act, the 1908 law that prohibits involvement with an unlawful organization. It was routinely used during Myanmar’s decades of military junta rule to detain those linked to rebel groups.
Section 17(1), which sets out prison terms of two to three years and a possible fine for being a member of an “unlawful association,” making contributions to one, or assisting its operations, is one of the country’s vague laws that has been used arrest and detain journalists.
In June 2017, two reporters from the independent online news outfit Democratic Voice of Burma and one from the online journal The Irrawaddy were charged and detained for violating Section17(1) by covering a drug-burning ceremony held by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, an ethnic militia engaged in hostilities with the Myanmar army.
'No access to information or rights'
Also on Friday, the Myanmar Journalists Union (MJU) pledged to try to amend the country’s Media Law, the group’s newly elected chairman Zaw Thet Htway told RFA’s Myanmar Service at MJU’s annual meeting in Yangon.
The 2014 statute enacted under former president Thein Sein’s administration lays out the professional responsibilities and codes of conduct for all media professionals and fines for those found guilty of violating them.
“We formed the MJU in 2012 with two objectives, which are to protect freedom of expression and to protect journalists,” Zaw Thet Htay said. “The MJU has tried as much as we can to encourage and support journalists while they are being charged and sent to jail.”
“The MJU will continue working on our major objectives because [as journalists] we still don’t have access to information or rights,” he said. “We could go to parliament and to the Ministry of Information and discuss media freedom with members of parliament and other officials during President Thein Sein’s term, but we have less of a chance of discussing this now with current lawmakers and Ministry of Information officials.”
Though the MJU was formed with 15 board members six years ago, it has not yet officially registered with authorities and does not have a central executive committee.
The group, which also elected a secretary and finance officer at its meeting, will register in two months, Zaw Thet Htway said.
“We now have to submit the names of two representatives from the MJU to the Myanmar Press Council in August,” he said, referring to the independent media adjudication body that investigates and settles press disputes, promotes journalism ethics, and protects journalists.
Reported by Htet Arkar and Win Ko Ko Latt for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.