Activists and journalists in Myanmar have rallied against the jailing of two Reuters news agency reporters amid a growing international outcry over threats to press freedom in the Southeast Asian country.
At least 100 demonstrators, including high school students, on Sunday gathered in central Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, chanting slogans denouncing the guilty verdict against the pair, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.
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Protesters held signs that included the messages “Murder is not a state secret” and “revealing the truth is not a crime”, and released black balloons emblazoned with photos of the two jailed reporters.
Thar Lun Zaung Htet, a journalist involved in organising the protest, said the sentencing against reporters who were “just doing their job” would stifle reporting in Myanmar.
“Losing press freedom means our democratic transition is going backwards,” he told Reuters.
The ruling caused international uproar and condemnation, with human rights organisations, the United Nations and a number of governments calling for the reporters’ release.
“We are very angry. We are disappointed in the new government. Shame on them,” activist Maung Saung Kha, 25, told AFP news agency.
The civilian government of de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi assumed power in 2016 following a landslide election victory after more than 50 years of rule by the country’s powerful army.
Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 29, were arrested in December while investigating the extrajudicial killing by security forces of 10 Rohingya men during last year’s military crackdown against the persecuted minority.
The incident was later acknowledged by the army.
At a public event in Hanoi last Thursday, Aung San Suu Kyi appeared to back the court’s decision and denied the men had been jailed for their journalism.
In response, six Myanmar journalist organisations published a rare statement on Friday saying they were “disappointed” with Aung San Suu Kyi’s comments.
Journalists and writers across the globe have also taken to social media to post messages of solidarity with the jailed reporters.
Author Margaret Atwood called the judgment against them a “travesty of justice” in a post on Twitter on Sunday. Staff at the New Yorker magazine, Time magazine and Pro Publica website, as well as editors in Bangladesh‘s eastern city of Chittagong also posted messages calling for the reporters’ immediate release.
The conviction of Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo is a travesty of justice. I support @PENamerican and Myanmar activists in calling for their immediate release. #FreeWaLoneKyawSoeOo @PENCanada @englishpen @pen_int @IndexCensorship #HumanRights @CJFE
— Margaret E. Atwood (@MargaretAtwood) September 16, 2018
The New Yorker stands with @Reuters and the reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were sentenced to seven years in prison in Myanmar for exposing the execution of Rohingya. Journalism is not a crime. #FreeWaLoneKyawSoeOo #PressFreedom pic.twitter.com/1g7OqlpQFT
— The New Yorker (@NewYorker) September 12, 2018
Federica Mogherini, European Union‘s foreign policy chief, on Thursday urged Myanmar’s government to free the two reporters, saying observers saw their trial as a test for democracy in the country and that “it is pretty clear that the test has failed”.
The UN says a campaign of widespread murder, rape and arson forced more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee over the border into Bangladesh. Myanmar has denied the allegations.
UN investigators say the violence merits the prosecution of top generals for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.