Yangon, Myanmar – Burma may have a new name and a democratically elected government, but the oppressive laws introduced by British colonial overlords are again the preferred weapon of choice when dealing with critical journalists.
On December 12, reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo from the Reuters news agency were handed a rolled up document by two police officers. They said they had just returned from Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine state, where more than 650,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled a brutal military crackdown, sparked by a series of rebel attacks on security forces in August.
Upon leaving the restaurant where the four men met, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were promptly arrested by seven policemen, patiently waiting outside.
Myanmar’s Ministry of Information said the pair “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media”. The families of the reporters – both of whom had been working on stories about the military’s operation in Rakhine state – said they were lured into a trap.
“The situation for press freedom in Myanmar has got a lot worse since the Rohingya crisis began,” said Daniel Bastard from Reporters Without Border’s Asia-Pacific desk.
According to its data, 12 journalists were arrested in Myanmar in 2017 compared to just two the previous year.
Myanmar’s military stand accused of a litany of human rights abuses in northern Rakhine. Graphic reports of rape, murder, and torture have drawn international condemnation and the United Nations says “genocide” cannot be ruled out.
“The case of the two Reuters journalists is very significant in this regard, they were reporting on a village that had been attacked by the military so the authorities are doing whatever they can to shut them up,” said Bastard.
On Wednesday, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were marched into a courtroom packed with concerned representatives from the United Nations, European Union, and numerous Western governments. In an appearance that lasted no longer than 12 minutes, the pair were formally charged under section 3.1c of the 1928 Official Secrets Act.
“We view this as a wholly unwarranted, blatant attack on press freedom,” said Stephen J Adler, president and editor-in-chief of Reuters.
On his way out of the courtroom, Wa Lone was given the bittersweet news that his wife was expecting a child. If found guilty of the draconian law, his first-born son or daughter will be 14-years-old by the time he is released from prison.
“We never made any mistakes, they are trying to stop us and intimidate us,” the stunned journalist said as eight police officers ushered him out of the courtroom, his wife still clutching his hand, tears glistening on her cheek.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are not the first journalists to be charged under a colonial-era law over the last 12 months. Both the 1908 Unlawful Association Act and 1934 Aircraft Act were employed in 2017 to detain journalists reporting on conflict in Myanmar.
“Authorities are using antiquated laws to prosecute journalists and to create a climate of fear under the watch of Aung San Suu Kyi. This government is looking increasingly authoritarian by the day,” said David Baulk, Myanmar human rights specialist at Fortify Rights.
His thoughts were echoed by freelance journalist Aung Naing Soe, who recently served two months in prison after his colleagues from Turkish news channel TRT World were caught in possession of a drone near the parliament building.
“The government are trying to show us that they still hold the power and that we cannot report on whatever we want, even if we are doing the right thing and holding the government to account,” he told Al Jazeera, a week after his release.
But if intimidation is the motive, it does not appear to be working. Wednesday’s court hearing was attended by an army of local journalists, proudly wearing their new, uniform of solidarity – a black T-shirt with “Journalism is not a crime” clearly inscribed on its front and rear.
“This is not an issue of free press, it is a legal issue,” said government spokesperson U Zaw Htay in a conversation with Al Jazeera. “The government is committed to freedom of expression, but another of our priorities is the rule of law and we expect journalists to abide by our laws.”
Some of the locals tend to agree with him. When U Kyaw Khin first opened his roadside newspaper stall in 1998, Myanmar journalists had to submit their work to the government for pre-publication approval.
“The only limitation now is that we cannot insult the government without any proof. The problem with foreign media is that they are biased, they write about whatever they want and they do not speak to people on all sides,” said the spritely 67-year-old.
Reporting on both sides of the Rohingya crisis has proven difficult for members of the foreign press who are prohibited from entering the conflict-torn areas of Rakhine state and rarely granted interviews with top government officials.
Their dependency on information gathered from the swelling refugee population in Bangladesh has earned them pariah status in Myanmar, where the Rohingya are widely perceived as foreign terrorists.
More worryingly, it has emboldened nationalist voices who – like the military dictators that terrorised Myanmar – say journalists who challenge the official narrative should be punished for their treachery.
“Put them [Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo] in prison for many years so that they will be afraid to betray us again. This is our country, our land!!” commented U Min Nwe Win on a local newspaper’s Facebook page.
With the judicial system as slow as it is archaic, it will likely be sometime before the outcome of this controversial case is announced.
U Min Nwe Win may be mistaken if he thinks the arrests will silence journalists who dare challenge the government. It is not just Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo who are on trial, but press freedom in Myanmar itself.