Journalists, activists and Myanmar civil society groups are calling for the immediate release of two Reuters reporters, exactly one year since they were arrested and later jailed for their work exposing a massacre of Rohingya Muslims by members of the military.
“The fact that they remain in prison for a crime they did not commit calls into question Myanmar’s commitment to democracy, freedom of expression and rule of law,” Reuters Editor-in-Chief Stephen J. Adler said in a statement.
“The people of Myanmar deserve the freedoms and democracy they have long been promised, and Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo deserved to be returned to their families and colleagues immediately.”
The case of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo was seen as a litmus test for press freedom and democratic rights in the Southeast Asian country. Their subsequent sentence of seven years in prison cast a pall over Myanmar’s media community, and sparked increased international criticism of the country’s de facto leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
On Tuesday, the Reuters reporters were among several journalists named as Time magazine’s Person of the Year 2018 under the banner “the Guardians.” It’s just one of several honors, awards and accolades the pair have received for their work while behind bars.
A ‘sham’ trial
Wednesday also marks a year that Pan Ei Mon and Chit Su Win have spent without their husbands. Pan Ei Mon was pregnant when Wa Lone was detained and she gave birth to a baby girl – Thet Htar Angel – a month before her husband was sentenced. He did not see his daughter until she was 11 weeks old.
“I want my daughter to know how much her father loves her,” Pan Ei Mon told CNN in September. “When I was coaxing her to sleep, she was looking at me, and she was holding my fingers, which are nice moments for me. But I want my husband to feel those nice moments too.”
Both women have struggled with being separated from their husbands for so long. Angel had been sick, but Pan Ei Mon hid that fact from the girl’s father, so as not to burden him further.
Nevertheless, she said she was proud of his continued defiance – Wa Lone’s cheery smile and double thumbs up have become his trademark, despite being shackled and led everywhere by police – and his calls for press freedom.
The two reporters were arrested during an investigation which helped uncover the killing of 10 Rohingya men in the western state of Rakhine and served as evidence of Myanmar military abuses against Rohingya civilians there, despite repeated denials from the army and the government.
The killings they investigated were part of a campaign of rape, arson and murder which the military unleashed on the persecuted minority last year, and which led to more than 720,000 Rohingya fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh. A UN fact-finding mission has called for several top generals to face charges of genocide over the crackdown.
The two journalists’ reporting did not sit well with the military leaders, who paraded them through a trial that human rights lawyer Amal Clooney declared a “sham” and “a miscarriage of justice.”
They were charged with breaching the Official Secrets Act, a rarely-used colonial-era law, for possessing documents relating to the massacre. But supporters of the pair have alleged they were set up, and police captain Moe Yan Naing later told the court he witnessed a plot by senior police to frame the two journalists. He was imprisoned himself not long after.
Another police officer told the court he had burned his notes from the arrest, while a colleague read from notes that were written on his hand.
Clooney, who helped represent the reporters, said prosecutors seemed less interested in the documents the reporters were charged with possessing, and more in “who the journalists’ sources were … and questioned why, as Buddhists, they would bother exposing crimes committed against Rohingyas.”
On Wednesday, Clooney said the reporters should be “applauded for their public service, not imprisoned for it.”
“Their future is in the government’s hands, and the world is watching,” she said.
During the trial, Myanmar’s military confirmed the massacre had taken place, and state media reported seven soldiers were jailed for the killings. Yet still, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were sentenced to seven years in prison.
“It demonstrates the extent to which the military is still controlling significant portions of the judicial system,” said Matt Smith, chief executive officer of advocacy group Fortify Rights. “This is a case that the military has demonstrated a particular interest in and I think the fact that the trial was such a farce and they’re still behind bars is indicative of the military’s role.”
Despite a partial transition to democracy after decades of military rule, the army’s power is still far-reaching. In the country’s north, three ethnic Kachin activists – Lum Zawng, Nang Pu and Zau Jet – are currently being held for allegedly criticizing the army during a peaceful protest in April against ongoing fighting there.
The UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, said last week she is “seriously concerned by the continual shrinking of the democratic space in Myanmar, and the culture of fear that now exists.”
‘Journalism is not a crime but genocide is’
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have always maintained their innocence. “We didn’t do anything wrong,” Kyaw Soe Oo said after their sentencing in September, though he added he was “not exactly shocked by the verdict.”
On November 20, the Yangon High Court allowed an appeal for the two journalists to go ahead later this month. But their year-long incarceration has “sent a shiver through the national media, “said Yin Yadanar Thein, director of advocacy group Free Expression Myanmar.
“As a result there is an almost total media blackout on what is happening inside Rakhine state because journalists are too fearful to publish even the most basic information,” she added.
With a general election scheduled for 2020, press freedom advocates are calling on Suu Kyi to reform a host of colonial-era laws, including the Official Secrets Act, that are currently being used to restrict freedom of speech. Others are pushing for those who committed atrocities in Rakhine and elsewhere in the country to be held accountable – the International Criminal Court is currently examining whether there is sufficient evidence to file charges for the forced deportations of Rohingya.
“Journalism is not a crime but genocide is, and it should be prosecuted in an independent and impartial international court.” said Fortify Rights’ Smith. “The government fears and distrusts the media and is attempting to control it by force, regardless of basic human rights. This case is an affront to rule of law.”
Suu Kyi has defended the reporters’ jailing, saying at an event in Singapore earlier this year that they broke the law and their conviction had “nothing to do with freedom of expression at all.” She has also steadfastly defended the military’s actions in Rakhine, echoing assertions by the army that the crackdown was a legitimate response to attacks by Rohingya militants.
As well as accusing the international media of biased coverage of the Rohingya crisis, ministers in Suu Kyi’s government have called on the country’s journalists to protect the reputation of the country.
Some observers have compared her tactics to those of past military regimes.
“Suu Kyi is like a matriarch who wants to protect her family but does so by controlling everything they do rather than giving them the knowledge and confidence to protect themselves,” according to Yin Yadanar Thein.
She said the ruling National League for Democracy, Suu Kyi’s party, “needs to look in the mirror and see that they are becoming what they bravely campaigned against for so many years.”
CNN’s Rebecca Wright, Matt Rivers and Cape Diamond contributed reporting from Yangon, Myanmar.