A Myanmar court has found two Reuters journalists guilty of breaching a law on state secrets during their reporting of a massacre of Rohingya and sentenced them to seven years in prison, sparking an international outcry.
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.
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Scot Marciel, US ambassador to Myanmar, said he was “sad for Wa lone and Kyaw Soe Oo and their families, but also for Myanmar”.
“It’s deeply troubling … one has to ask will this process increase or decrease the confidence the people of Myanmar have in their justice system,” he said.
Dan Chugg, British ambassador to Myanmar expressed extreme disappointment and lambasted presiding Judge Ye Lwin over the verdict.
“The judge has appeared to have ignored evidence and to have ignored Myanmar law. This has dealt a hammer blow for the rule of law,” he said.
Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury, media adviser to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, also strongly condemned the verdict.
“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,” he said.
Bangladesh hosts more than 700,000 Rohingya who fled Myanmar following a security crackdown by its army in Rakhine State last year.
‘Unfair and one-sided’
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had pleaded not guilty to violating the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, punishable by up to 14 years in prison. They contended they were framed by police.
The Reuters reporters were arrested on December 12 while investigating the killing of 10 Rohingya and other abuses involving soldiers and police in Inn Din, a village in Rakhine State.
Myanmar has denied allegations of atrocities made by thousands of refugees against its security forces, saying it conducted a legitimate military operation against Rohingya fighters.
But the military has acknowledged the killing of the 10 Rohingya men and boys at Inn Din after arresting the Reuters reporters.
Wa Lone, calling Monday’s decision “unfair” and “one-sided”, said it “directly threatens” Myanmar’s democracy and freedom of the press.
Speaking to reporters on the court steps after the sentencing, Wa Lone gave a defiant “thumbs up” and said: “We will face it [the verdict] with stability and courage”.
Kyaw Soe Oo also said the reporters had committed no crime and that they would maintain 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.
The case has drawn worldwide attention as an example of how press freedom is suffering under the government of Myanmar’s de facto leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Kristian Schmidt, EU ambassador to Myanmar, in a post on Twitter, said the prison sentences of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo should be “reviewed and they should be released immediately and unconditionally”.
EU: The prison sentences of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo should be reviewed and they should be released immediately and unconditionally.
— Kristian Schmidt (@EUAmbSchmidt) September 3, 2018
Expressing his disappointment, Knut Ostby, UN resident and humanitarian aid coordinator in Myanmar, also called for the release of the journalists.
“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,” he said.
“Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo should be allowed to return to their families and continue their work as journalists.”
Denmark, in a statement, urged Myanmar’s government to undo “this injustice”, while a spokesman at the Dutch embassy in Myanmar called on President Win Myint to release the two journalists as soon as possible.
‘A new low for Myanmar’
Stephen J Adler, Reuters’ editor-in-chief, called the ruling a “major step backward in Myanmar’s transition to democracy” and said it “must be corrected by the Myanmar government as a matter of urgency”.
He denounced the charges against the reporters as “false” and “designed to silence their reporting and intimidate the press”.
“We will not wait while Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo suffer this injustice and will evaluate how to proceed in the coming days, including whether to seek relief in an international forum,” he added.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for the Human Rights Watch, called the sentence an “outrageous injustice” and said Myanmar’s military, also known as the Tatmadaw, wanted a guilty verdict against the two reporters in order to “intimidate” other journalists to avoid reporting on human rights violations.
“This is clearly a situation when the Tatmadaw has won the day,” he told Al Jazeera.
“This is a court system that has been very close to the Burmese military, [and] has done its dirty work in the past. We do not really see the kind the of independent judiciary that we would expect in a modern democracy.”
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
The Committee to Protect Journalists also condemned the sentencing of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, saying it marked a “new low for Myanmar”.
“The process that resulted in their convictions was a travesty of justice and will cast Myanmar as an anti-democratic pariah as long as they are wrongfully held behind bars,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative in a statement.
Amnesty International’s Tirana Hassan called the verdict “a politically motivated decision” with significant ramifications for press freedom in Myanmar.
“It sends a stark warning to other journalists of the severe consequences that await should they look too closely at military abuses. This amounts to censorship through fear,” she said.
Thant Myint-U, Myanmar historian and commentator, said the verdict marked a “tragic day for media freedom and an intimation of what’s to come”.
In the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, Mohib Ullah, a Rohingya leader, said he hoped the two journalists are freed soon.
“This is not justice. I would like to see them free as soon as possible. They did nothing wrong,” he said.