YANGON: Two journalists belonging to Reuters news agency, accused of breaching Myanmar’s state secrets law while reporting on a massacre of Rohingya Muslims, were jailed for seven years on Monday, fuelling international outrage a week after the army was blamed for genocide.
Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, who have been held in Yangon’s Insein prison since their arrest in December, were charged with violating the Official Secrets Act, a draconian British colonial-era law that carries a maximum sentence of 14 years.
The case, which sparked an international outcry, was seen as an attempt to muzzle reporting on last year’s crackdown by Myanmar’s security forces on the Muslim Rohingya minority in Rakhine state.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo sentenced to seven-year imprisonment each
Army-led “clearance operations” drove 700,000 Rohingya Muslims into Bangladesh, carrying with them widespread accounts of atrocities — rape, murder and arson — by Myanmar police and troops.
The reporters denied the secrets charges, insisting they were set up while exposing the extrajudicial killing of 10 Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine village of Inn Din in September last year.
They had told the court they were arrested after being invited to dinner by police in Yangon, who handed them documents.
As they left the restaurant, the pair were detained for possessing classified material.
But Judge Ye Lwin was unmoved, also choosing to disregard a whistleblowing policeman’s testimony that corroborated their version of events.
“The culprits intended to harm the interests of the state. And so they have been found guilty under the state secrets act,” he told the packed Yangon court.
“They are sentenced to seven years in prison each,” he said.
Kyaw Soe Oo’s wife Chit Su Win wept after the judge delivered the verdict, collapsing on the ground in tears as she filed out of the sweltering courtroom along with other shell-shocked family members, reporters and diplomats.
The handcuffed pair, both Myanmar nationals with young children, gave brief but defiant statements on the court steps.
“The government can detain us in the prison but... don’t close the ears and eyes of the people,” Kyaw Soe Oo said.
Wa Lone, whose wife gave birth to a baby daughter less than a month ago, gave a defiant thumbs-up to the massed ranks of reporters.
“We will face it (the verdict) with stability and courage,” he said, before the pair were bundled into a waiting police van and taken back to the notorious Insein prison.
Defence lawyer Khin Maung Zaw said an appeal would be lodged as soon as possible against the verdict, which Reuters denounced as based on false charges.
“Today is a sad day for Myanmar... and the press everywhere,” Reuters editor-in-chief Stephen J. Adler said in a statement, adding that the outcome was designed to silence their reporting and intimidate the press.
The UN, the US, the European Union and EU members Britain and France condemned the verdict and reiterated calls for the reporters’ release, while rights groups added their voices to the chorus of outrage.
“I was shocked,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.
Reporters Without Borders condemned the trial and punishment, describing it as a dark day for press freedom in Myanmar.
Published in Dawn, September 4th, 2018