HONG KONG — A Myanmar judge on Monday found two Reuters journalists guilty of violating a colonial-era secrets law, sentencing them to seven years in prison after a months-long trial widely seen as farcical and a severe blow for press freedom in the country.
Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were detained last December after a late-night meeting with police officers who handed them documents in what has been described by defense attorneys and press watchdogs as a case of entrapment. Other officers arrested the journalists shortly after, claiming the documents were secret, and held them incommunicado for weeks. They were charged with a violation of the Official Secrets Act, a colonial-era law that press watchdogs say has been used to muzzle independent reporting, and carries a maximum of 14 years in jail.
In a statement announcing his ruling, Ye Lwin, the judge presiding over the case, said the two journalists possessed “top secret documents” and planned to share it with others, including insurgent groups in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
Khin Maung Zaw, a lawyer for the pair, described the assertion as ridiculous, but said the government’s message was clear: “Hold your tongues, don’t say anything, don’t be inquisitive.”
Defense attorneys will appeal the decision, he said.
The journalists have pleaded not guilty, and have repeatedly said they were merely doing their jobs. At the time of their arrest, the pair were reporting on the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys in a village in Rakhine.
As the judge read his statement and the verdict, Chit Su Win, Kyaw Soe Oo’s wife, leaned into the lap of the person next to her and sobbed.
“We do not agree with the ruling, we did what we had to do as journalists,” Kyaw Soe Oo said to reporters in the brief moments before he was hauled back to prison in the police van. “To my family members, please stay strong for us, as we are not giving up.”
Speaking after the verdict, Kevin Krolicki, Reuters Asia regional editor, said it was a “dark moment and a deeply disappointing result.” In a statement, Reuters editor-in-chief Stephen J. Adler said the decision was a “major step backward in Myanmar’s transition to democracy.”
“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,” Adler added.
Myanmar’s government, Krolicki said, still has an opportunity to “do the right thing” and free the journalists. In Myanmar, the president’s office has the power to pardon thoseconvicted of a crime.
Myanmar’s president, Win Myint, was hand-picked for the job by de facto leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi wields power over the civilian government, and observers say that any decision to pardon the pair will likely come from her. However, she has not spoken up for press freedom or for the two journalists.
In a June interview with Japanese broadcaster NHK, she said they were arrested “because they broke the Official Secret Act” and that their case has gone on in “accordance with due process.”
In private, she has been even more stark. When Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and governor of New Mexico, and a friend of Suu Kyi’s, brought up the journalists’ case in his role as a member of an advisory commission her government formed, she “exploded” at him, he said in an interview.
“She said it was about the Official Secrets Act, not about Rakhine, and that this wasn’t our charter,” Richardson said. “We had a real confrontation.”
The case and its verdict have been widely condemned by critics in the internationall community who see them as evidence that journalists remain vulnerable and potential targets in Myanmar despite its political reforms of the past several years. U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Nikki Haley, ambassador to the U.N., have called for the release of the pair and for all charges against them to be dropped.
“The right to freedom of expression is not guaranteed — it is conditional on not challenging the government or the military, on not crossing their red lines,” said Thomas Kean, Wa Lone’s former editor at the Myanmar Times and editor-in-chief of Frontier Myanmar, an English-language magazine. “If you do, they will go after you, and there are always laws on hand that can be dusted off and used.”
Authorities have made a show of dragging the journalists, handcuffed and flanked by dozens of police officers, to court for weekly proceedings, sometimes hastily pushing Wa Lone back into a police van as he tried to address reporters present.
“I have no fear. We have no fear. We know what we did — it was just to get information [for our reporting],” said Wa Lone after the guilty verdict, surrounded by a throng of journalists and photographers, before he was hastily pushed back into a police van and brought to Yangon’s notorious Insein prison. The judge’s assertion that they were planning to share the documents with militant groups is “ridiculous,” he said.
Myanmar has responded harshly to those who who challenge the official narrative that government forces were simply responding to militants by embarking on a massive operation in Rakhine last August, sending almost 900,000 mostly Rohingya Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh. A United Nations report last week asserted that the military’s actions were genocidal, and called on Myanmar military leaders, including the commander-in-chief, to be investigated and prosecuted over war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Police officers asked the Reuters journalists to meet them over dinner on December 12, where they were handed rolled up documents. Shortly after they left the restaurant, the pair said, they were stopped by other officers and accused of obtaining secret documents.
Lawyers for the pair say the case has highlighted deep flaws in Myanmar’s judicial system. The prosecution’s case has been peppered with inconsistencies, including a police officer’s testimony that he burned his notes from the time of their arrest. Another officer testified that he was instructed by his superiors to trap one of the reporters, Wa Lone. The two reporters were repeatedly denied bail, and subjected to harsh treatment during interrogation and while jailed.
“Everybody can now see, this is Myanmar,” said Khin Maung Zaw, the defense lawyer, speaking after the verdict.
The day before the verdict, dozens of journalists and activists marched through Yangon, Myanmar’s most populous city, demanding the release of the two journalists and calling for press freedom. But Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have also been labeled by their fellow countrymen as traitors who sold out Myanmar’s military and their country in favor of Rohingya Muslims, a widely-hated group in Myanmar. Their families have faced intimidation and the pair have been subject to slurs and threats on Facebook.
“The trial and the Rakhine crisis generally has undermined public support for the media and journalists,” said Kean, who has worked in Myanmar as a journalist since 2008. “Prior to 2016, I think there was generally a positive perception towards the media because it could act as a check on abuses of power, and in that sense was considered to be on the side of the people. But now it’s like a switch has been flipped.”
Kyaw Ye Lynn reported from Yangon, Myanmar.