By Prarthana Mitra
In the latest blow to press freedom in Myanmar (and Asia at large), two Reuters journalists were sentenced to seven years behind bars over damaging Rohingya reportage.
Charged under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, Wa Lone (32), and Kyaw Soe Oo (28), were found guilty by a district judge, for collecting and obtaining confidential documents regarding the landmark case.
It comes at a time when the government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is under global scrutiny for the military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims last year, which has been touted as genocide and ethnic cleansing. The most severe condemnation of the incident came last week from the UN, whose probe concluded that Myanmar’s military leaders should be tried for the horrific massacres and extra-judicial killings of Muslim minorities, followed by their mass exodus.
Reactions of outrage from all over
The latest verdict has drawn strong criticism from all over the world, and revived interest in the plight of all reporters languishing in Asian jails. Many are calling it a politically-motivated decision, while some others express dread about the future of press freedom.
Knut Ostby, UN resident and humanitarian aid coordinator in Myanmar, called for the immediate release of the journalists, saying, “The United Nations has consistently called for the release of the Reuters journalists and urged the authorities to respect their right to pursue freedom of expression and information…Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo should be allowed to return to their families and continue their work as journalists.”
The US and British ambassadors who were present at the sentencing of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo on Monday called the verdict a blow for Myanmar’s transition to democracy, lambasting presiding Judge Ye Lwin over the verdict.
No words for this outrageous injustice against @Reuters reporters Wa Lone & Kyaw Soe Oo. How can #Myanmar judicial system justify sending reporters doing their job to a longer prison sentence than the #Tatmadaw soldiers who killed the 10 #Rohingya in their story in cold blood? pic.twitter.com/lI2Qp0k6ub
— Phil Robertson (@Reaproy) September 3, 2018
Ironically, Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury, media adviser to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, also strongly condemned the verdict, while remaining silent on Bangladeshi photojournalist Shahidul Alam’s indefinite detainment since the students’ protest at Dhaka last month. The country has been harbouring tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees in its Cox Bazaar camps. “It is now an open secret that any media or any person who wants to reveal the atrocities of the Myanmar army and administration against the Rohingya people will face persecution by the Myanmar government,” Chowdhury told Al Jazeera.
Kristian Schmidt, EU ambassador to Myanmar, tweeted the prison sentences of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo should be “reviewed and they should be released immediately and unconditionally”. Stephen J Adler, Reuters’ editor-in-chief, also said that the charges against the reporters as “false” and “designed to silence their reporting and intimidate the press”.
Here’s what happened
Pleading not guilty to the violating the Official Secrets Act, both Lone and Oo have always claimed that they were being framed by the law enforcement authorities. At the time of their arrest in December 2017, they were investigating the killing of 10 Rohingya and other army-sponsored abuse at Inn Din in Rakhine State.
The government still continues to deny allegations of atrocities, calling it a legitimate operation against insurgents. It also did not allow UN’s fact-finding team entry into the state for investigation. But the military has acknowledged the killing of the 10 Rohingya men and boys at Inn Din after arresting the Reuters reporters.
At the court steps after the damning verdict, Wa Lone addressed fellow-journalists, saying, “We will face it [the verdict] with stability and courage”.
Kyaw Soe Oo also maintained his innocence and encouraged reporters to continue their fight for press freedom. “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,” he said.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.
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