Press freedom in Myanmar took a hard hit last week with the sentencing of two Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who had been investigating a massacre of Rohingya.

"We had been prepared, intellectually prepared, we knew it was possible that the judge would rule as he did, but nothing can prepare you for confronting injustice as it happens. Very hard, heartbreaking for the families of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. They both have young families," says Kevin Krolicki, Reuters Asia editor.

The Burmese journalists were arrested in December last year. A Burmese policeman admitted in court that the men had been entrapped. They had been researching a story about the mass killing and burial of 10 Rohingya men in Myanmar's northern Rakhine state.

The police offered them key secret state documents that would corroborate their findings. The documents were in fact not secret, the situation was a setup and the reporters were arrested and charged under the Official Secrets Act, a law that has been on the books since 1923 when Myanmar was called Burma and was a colony of Great Britain.

"These two journalists risked their freedom and their lives to expose a genocide. They exposed the highest crime, the worst crime committed by the Burmese military, and this is the biggest threat for the military - so they will never tolerate this," contends Kyaw Win, executive director of Burma Human Rights Network.

Myanmar's government has a unique structure, unlike any government anywhere else, with 25 percent of the parliamentary seats are reserved for the Burmese military and, as mandated by the constitution, three key ministries: Home Affairs, Defence, and Border Affairs are headed by serving members of the military.

For the former political activist turned State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party, being in government has effectively meant working alongside and often in subservience to her former captors.

According to Anna Roberts, executive director of Burma Campaign UK, "Aung San Suu Kyi's government cannot stop the police arresting journalists or other human rights activists. However, they do have the power to stop prosecutions going forward, and also under presidential amnesties they can release political prisoners. But more importantly, they have the power to repeal these repressive laws that are being used. But we've seen none of those actions by the government."

When the Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi came to power, many had hoped that democracy, including media freedoms, would prevail. Unfortunately, that has not been the case, according to Toe Zaw Latt, Myanmar Bureau Chief, Democratic Voice of Burma: "In terms of NLD in 2015, there is an election manifesto that isa  particular promise about media. None of them yet fulfilled and we are very disappointed about it. So media freedom is not priority in this country."

Reporting in local Burmese outlets on the violence against the Rohingya people has been poor.

It isn't just intimidation, censorship or lack of access that has affected the coverage. Many Burmese have grown up hearing political and social rhetoric against the Rohingya - calling them vermin, illegals and a threat to the Buddhist majority. A lot of this language has been reproduced in the country's media over the years.

And yet, when it has come to the case of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, journalists in Myanmar have largely shown solidarity. This case has set a worrying precedent and they can see the danger that faces them all.

With a media landscape already intimidated and controlled by the state, there's now a chill more intense than it has been in the past few years.


Kevin Krolicki - Asia editor, Reuters

Anna Roberts - executive director, Burma Campaign UK

Kyaw Win - executive director, Burma Human Rights Network

Toe Zaw Latt - Myanmar bureau chief, Democratic Voice of Burma

Source: Al Jazeera