Myanmar court refuses to dismiss case against Reuters journalists

A judge in Myanmar has rejected a request to dismiss the case of two journalists detained under the Government’s Official Secrets Act. The journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, have had to appear in court every week since their arrest in December 2017. 

Judge Ye Lwin said there was “proper reason” to proceed with the trial. According to the reporters’ defense lawyer, Khin Maung Zaw, the judge has heard 17 testimonies already and wants to hear another eight.

Reuters editor-in-chief Stephen J. Adler said: “We are deeply disappointed” by the decision.

This dismissal comes a week after another judge in Myanmar sentenced seven army soldiers to 10 years’ prison with hard labor in a remote area, for the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men in Inn Din village, Rakhine state. 

By contrast, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who had covered the Rohingya refugee crisis, and exposed these killings in the first place, could be imprisoned for up to 14 years.

(Read more on the Rohingya refugee crisis)

“The culprits who committed the massacre were sentenced to 10 years in prison. However, the ones who reported on it — us — are accused under a law that can get us imprisoned for 14 years. So, I’d like to ask the government: ‘Where is the truth? Where is the truth and justice? Where is democracy and freedom?'” Wa Lone, who turned 32 on Wednesday shouted to reporters on the steps of the court, before being pushed inside a police pickup truck, Reuters reported. 

The Myanmar government has not cited reporting on the Rohingya as a reason for their detention. The Ministry of Information, which controls state-run media and often acts as the voice of the government, had said that the two journalists were arrested for “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media,” according to the ministry’s Facebook page.

That post has since been taken down. No other details on the “illegally acquired information” have been given in the past three months.

According to a report in the New York Times, prosecution witnesses disagree on the details of the arrest of the journalists, while the evidence provided is not compelling.

Myint Kyaw, a member of the independent Myanmar Press Council,  told the Times that there has been no evidence to prove the journalists guilty since the beginning. “Today’s decision shows the overwhelming power of the military. It seems that they have already decided to punish them.”

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s arrest. Photo originally from the Facebook page of the Myanmar Ministry of Information. Screengrab from the FB page of Yangon Informer.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are being formally charged under the Government Secrets Act, according to the Myanmar Ministry of Information website. 

The National League of Democracy (NLD), the party led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, had supported the decision to arrest both journalists in December 2017. Htin Kyaw, a key leader of the NLD, agreed to let the charges proceed, according to Reuters.

Freedom of the press was one of the significant reforms made during Myanmar’s transition towards quasi-democracy in 2011, which included the release of Suu Kyi from years of house arrest. The military government abandoned pre-publication censorship of media in 2012, allowing some international journalists to report from there.

(Read more on Press Freedom in Myanmar)

On April 11, the courtroom observers included diplomats from France, the European Union, United States and Japan. Diplomats from these countries and others have condemned the arrests in the past.

In January, the then U.S Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other U.S. diplomats called for the journalists’ release. 

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