Six years after historic “press freedom” reforms were implemented, it’s clear that freedom of the press in Myanmar has its limits. Especially when a journalist is covering the Rohingya refugee crisis. And isn’t carrying a foreign passport.
Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were charged on Wednesday under Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act, a law with origins in the British colonial era. The statute comes with a maximum sentence of 14 years.
The two Myanmar reporters “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media,” according to the Myanmar Ministry of Information. The reporters told family members, while being detained, that they were handed several documents by local police hours before their arrest.
The Southeast Asian country formerly known as Burma was from the beginning destined to be a quasi-democracy. Under a constitution drafted by the military in 2008, the military-backed party is guaranteed a quarter of seats in parliament, ensuring the country’s former authoritarian rulers a guaranteed filibuster bloc. The military also retains complete autonomy from the civilian government.
“Their arrest and continued incarceration represent an egregious attack on press freedom — preventing them, and deterring other journalists, from reporting independently in Myanmar,” Reuters editor in chief Stephen J. Adler said in a statement.
Reporters ‘trying to reveal truth’ about grave
Details about the documents the journalists were alleged to have had in their possession remain unclear. Prosecutors released no evidence of the documents, nor explained how the reporters “illegally” obtained them.
What is known is that the charges are related to the journalists’ reporting on the Rohingya, a Muslim minority that faces “ethnic cleansing” according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The Ministry of Information said in a previous statement they “were arrested for possessing important and secret government documents related to Rakhine State and security forces.” Rakhine State is a western province where more than 600,000 Rohingya refugees fled between August and December 2016. (Read more on WikiTribune’s coverage of the Rohingya persecution in Myanmar.)
“They arrested us and took action against us because we were trying to reveal the truth,” Wa Lone told reporters after a court hearing.
The New York Times reported that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were investigating a photograph of a mass grave in northern Rakhine State before their arrest. The grave’s existence has been difficult to verify.
Journalists and humanitarian groups are barred from entering northern Rakhine State, where the Rohingya have been sequestered by the government (Human Rights Watch). As a result, unverified footage of atrocities and accusations of “fake news” by government officials are widespread in Rakhine State. Reports on the Rohingya refugee crisis depend on personal accounts and satellite images that have shown widespread burning of Rohingya villages (Human Rights Watch).
No help from country’s civilian government
Though this isn’t the first time press freedom has been under fire in Myanmar, the arrest of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo has drawn condemnation from world leaders and human rights organizations (Amnesty International).
A free press is critical to a free society—the detention of journalists anywhere is unacceptable. The Reuters journalists being held in Myanmar should be released immediately.
— Bill Clinton (@BillClinton) January 9, 2018
In 2016, The Myanmar Times fired Fiona MacGregor, a foreign journalist working in Yangon, as the paper’s special investigations editor after she reported on widespread allegations of the Myanmar military using rape as a weapon against Rohingya women. Frontier Myanmar, a Yangon-based publication, reported that government ministers were behind MacGregor’s termination.
Government censorship isn’t an issue for international publications with headquarters outside of Myanmar. But MacGregor worked for a Myanmar-based publication, which is more prone to government intervention.
While Myanmar has greatly liberalized its once government-operated economy, the private sector still has weak protections from state actors. The World Bank ranked Myanmar 171 out of 190 countries in terms of doing business.
The arrest of Reuters journalists shows that even major international publications may have difficulty protecting their reporters if they have the wrong passport. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are both citizens of Myanmar, a country whose journalists have often been targeted by authorities. They don’t enjoy the privileges typically afforded to journalists from foreign countries.
After a 2016 Facebook post, journalist and chief executive of Eleven Media Group, Than Htut Aung, was detained after he accused a government minister of corruption (Committee to Protect Journalists). The subject of the post, Chief Minister Yangon Phyo Min Thein, said the article was defamatory and attacked his “personal dignity.”
In 2014, a Myanmar journalist was killed by authorities after reporting on fighting between the government and ethnic rebel forces in southern Myanmar (Frontier Myanmar). Military officials reported they’d shot the reporter after he attempted to escape custody.
Whether Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo actually uncovered damaging information about the government is unclear.
The European Union expressed concern about their detention to Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar’s government, but has yet to receive a response.
On Monday, in response to President Donald J. Trump’s announcement of his forthcoming “fake news awards,” the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists announced its Press Oppressors awards. Nobel-laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the unofficial and dubious title of Biggest Backslider of Press Freedom.
In bestowing the mock award, the CPJ cited her government’s support for the arrest of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.