Myanmar journalist Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, carries his daughter while he is escorted to the Yangon courthouse on the first day of his trial on July 16. Two Reuters reporters accused of breaking the nation's draconian secrecy law during their reporting of a massacre of Rohingya Muslims at a village in Rakhine State were jailed for seven years each on Sept. 3. (Photo by Myo Kyaw Soe/AFP)
The recent jaiiling of two Reuters reporters signaled another blow to the freedom of the press in Myanmar and raised questions about the safety of local journalists under draconian laws.
A court in Yangon jailed Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, for seven years each on Sept. 3 for breaching a law on state secrets during their reporting of a massacre of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State. The journalists claimed they were framed by police.
It was a dark day for Myanmar and sent a chilling message to journalists there, who must now choose between self-censorship or a possible jail sentence for reporting on the rights abuses of Myanmar's military in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states.
The military, which still plays a major role in the nation's politics, has issued a clear "threat" to journalists and warned them not to cross a red line or deal with the consequences.
Amid waning press freedom, activists and journalists continue to push for the right to information as this is the foundation of a strong democracy, along with freedom of expression and rule of law.
On Sept.16, dozens of activists and journalists staged a peaceful protest in Yangon where they made speeches, chanted slogans calling for the public's right to information, and released black balloons bearing images of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.
They also held placards that read, "A massacre is not a state secret" and, "If press freedom is shut down, democracy fails."
The political liberalization that started in 2011 saw improvements in terms of media freedom until 2015 but the situation is now backsliding.
Local journalists must now think twice before reporting on sensitive issues such as illegal land seizures by the military or business elites, as well as matters relating to religious freedom.
As a journalist covering religion, politics and human rights in Myanmar, I felt more comfortable collecting information from various sources and accessing information from government ministries during that five-year period. One example of how things started changing for the better is that even foreign journalists were granted access to Rohingya camps for internally displaced people (IDP) near Sittwe, the capital city of Rakhine, from 2012 under the tenure of former president Thein Sein.
There are believed to be about 100,000 Rohingya living in such camps.
Nowadays, however, local authorities have applied more restrictions and local journalists require permission from officials in the capital Naypyitaw in order to access the camps.
After the Rohingya crisis engulfed the country in August 2017, the public became divided. Most people took the view that journalists, especially those working for foreign news agency, were "selling news for greenbacks." Reporters were branded "traitors."
"We must be very careful now and avoid traveling to Rakhine or writing stories about the military. We have been branded enemies of the state," Tha Lun Zaung Htet, a member of a committee tasked with protecting journalists in Myanmar, told the Columbia Journal Review.
Myanmar's State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi has commented on the jailing of the two Reuters journalists, drawing criticism. She defended the court's verdict, saying at the World Economic Forum on ASEAN in Hanoi on Sept.12 that "they were not jailed because they were journalists, they were jailed because … the court decided that they [had] broken the Official Secrets Act."
"I wonder whether very many people have actually read the summary of the judgment, which had nothing to do with freedom of expression at all, it had to do with an Official Secrets Act," she said.
"If we believe in the rule of law, they have every right to appeal the judgment and to point out why the judgment was wrong."
Even before the court's verdict, Suu Kyi told NHK television in June that the two Reuters journalists were guilty of breaking the aforementioned act.
Serious questions were subsequently raised about whether she had been well-informed by her inner circle of the full story concerning the two journalists, such as the police captain coming forward as a witness at the court to admit they had been framed. Another officer allegedly confessed to having burned his own records of the case to make certain details disappear.
Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said the "rule of law" means respecting all the evidence presented in court, and preserving the independence of the judiciary from the influence of the government or security forces.
Sadly, the Reuters case shows us how little the rule of law is prevailing in a country where parishes once flourished. But long-held attitudes die hard, and Myanmar has had what we can call a "broken" judicial system for over half a century.
During his inaugural speech in March, President Win Myint said: "I wish to urge the media sector, which serve as the ears and eyes of the public, to understand the seriousness of their duties and to hold in high regard the public sector that they serve."
Now is the time to keep that promise and promote media freedom and freedom of expression as the cornerstone of a healthy democracy based on the rule of law.