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Another backward step for Myanmar as journalists lose appeal

Press freedom and the rule of law appear dead in the Southeast Asian nation

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Another backward step for Myanmar as journalists lose appeal

Police escort detained Myanmar journalist Kyaw Soe Oo after appearing before a court trial in Yangon on Aug. 20, 2018. At the time of their arrest Kyaw Soe Oo, 28 and Wa Lone, 32, had been investigating the massacre of 10 Rohingya in Rakhine State a week after militants attacked police posts on Aug. 25, 2017 triggering a brutal response from police and troops. (Photo by Ye Aung Thu/AFP)

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If anyone still harbors hopes that Myanmar’s fragile democratization remains on track, look at the Supreme Court ruling on April 23 rejecting the appeal of two Reuters journalists against a 7-year jail sentence. The court’s decision is a hammer blow for democracy.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, two young reporters simply — but courageously — doing their job, have already spent more than 16 months in prison after their arrest in December 2017.

They have been tortured and subjected to sleep deprivation. Wa Lone’s wife gave birth to their first child while he was behind bars.

They were arrested because they allegedly broke the Official Secrets Act. In reality, they revealed the truth about a massacre which Myanmar’s military wanted to hide.

Their case was further complicated by the fact that a police officer told a court hearing last year that officers had planted secret documents on the two journalists, framing them for the charges they faced. The policeman, Moe Yan Naing, was then jailed for breaking the Police Disciplinary Act. Another police officer admitted that the documents had already been published in newspapers, and so were not secret. Yet another police witness told the court that he had burned his notes of the case.

Despite these and other holes in the case, the Yangon High Court rejected their appeal in January, and the Supreme Court has upheld that ruling. At the start of Thingyan, the Buddhist New Year, Myanmar’s President Win Myint pardoned 9,000 prisoners in the traditional amnesty, but Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were not among them. Indeed, only two political prisoners, out of 364, were freed, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, alongside hundreds convicted of drug-related offences.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo exposed a massacre of ten Rohingya that took place in September 2017 in Inn Dinn village, Rakhine State, in the midst of the horrific military assault on the Rohingya that is now widely recognized as a genocide.

They discovered how local Buddhist villagers had dug the grave and hacked two Rohingya to death. The others were shot by the Myanmar army.

In any society that is moving towards democracy, such courageous investigative reporting should be applauded, not criminalized. Indeed, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have been awarded the Pulitzer Prize and deservedly so, but they cannot travel to receive it as they remain in prison.

Their case has already attracted worldwide attention. The U.N. secretary-general has called for their release, prominent human rights lawyer Amal Clooney has taken up their case, and British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt — who has launched a major campaign for press freedom worldwide with Clooney as a special envoy — has spoken out.

Reuters’ Chief Counsel Gail Gove said after the Supreme Court’s decision that the two “did not commit any crime, nor was there any proof that they did. Instead, they were victims of a police set-up to silence their truthful reporting.”

Ye Naing Moe, director of the Yangon School of Journalism and Myanmar’s leading media trainer had told an earlier court hearing that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were excellent reporters who had won multiple awards. They were jailed “for revealing the truth”.

The rule of law and the freedom of the press are two of the bedrocks of any democracy. Myanmar’s elections in 2015, which saw the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi win an overwhelming mandate and form a government after a quarter of a century of struggle, gave hope that Myanmar’s days of repressive dictatorship were in the past. A trial in which a police set-up has been exposed and yet still resulted in such a travesty of justice calls all that into question.

Its two biggest victims — besides the two individuals concerned — are press freedom and the rule of law, which now appear dead. No one expected miracles overnight, but equally no one expected such regression so fast. April 23 was another dark day for Myanmar. 

The world was quick to welcome signs of reform in Myanmar when the previous government under Thein Sein, a former general, released political prisoners, relaxed space for the media and civil society, and entered into dialogue with Suu Kyi.

The world was too slow to speak out and too late to prevent the genocide of the Rohingya, a horrific crime against humanity, now in danger of being repeated in northern Myanmar against the Kachin, Shan and other ethnic groups.

But there is some truth to the argument that Suu Kyi and the civilian government have no control over the military. They may not be able to prevent crimes against humanity. They could have spoken out, they need not have shielded the military, but their powers were constrained. In regard to this case, however, there is no excuse. As democrats, Suu Kyi and the civilian government should defend press freedom and the rule of law.

The world should now be quick to speak out for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, and for Myanmar’s freedoms and the rule of law. Everything possible should be done to seek the immediate release of these two brave young men.

Failure to respond robustly to this gross injustice will mean Myanmar returning ever faster to the bad old days of repression, consigning the reform era of 2011-2015 to a mere illusion. It is time to cry out as loudly as possible: Free Wa Lone, Free Kyaw Soe Oo.

Benedict Rogers is East Asia Team Leader at the international human rights organization CSW, and the author of three books on Myanmar, including Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads.'

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