Myanmar / Court rejects Reuters journalists’ appeal against 7-year sentence

By: Tom O'Connell - Posted on: January 11, 2019 | Current Affairs

The reporters may appeal today’s decision in Myanmar’s supreme court. Another option is a presidential pardon

Wa Lone (L) and Kyaw Soe Oo (R) were arrested on 12 December 2017 by the Myanmar Police Force, and sentenced to seven years in prison at a court in September 2018 Photo: Lynn Bo Bo / EPA-EFE

The appeal by the two Reuters reporters in Myanmar of their seven-year prison sentences for violating a state secrets law has been denied. A Yangon high court said the pair’s defence failed to produce sufficient evidence of their innocence.

Ko Wa Lone, 32, and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were sentenced last September after allegedly being set up by a Myanmar police chief in December 2017.

“Today’s ruling is yet another injustice among many inflicted upon Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oom,” Reuters editor-in-chief Stephen J. Adler said in a statement. “They remain behind bars for one reason: those in power sought to silence the truth…. Reporting is not a crime, and until Myanmar rights this terrible wrong, the press in Myanmar is not free, and Myanmar’s commitment to rule of law and democracy remains in doubt.”

High Court Judge Aung Naing maintained that the pair had failed to follow journalistic ethics, saying the seven-year sentence was a “suitable punishment” for the reporters.

The pair may appeal this latest decision in Myanmar’s supreme court in the capital of Naypyitaw.

Their supporters are pushing for a pardon by Myanmar’s president.

Myanmar political analyst Dr. Yan Myo Thein told Southeast Asia Globe: “All journalists including Reuters journalists and all political prisoners behind the bars and those having trial should be released immediately under the presidential pardon by Myanmar President U Win Myint as of section 204(a) of the Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar in which it is described that the president has the power to grant a pardon.”

Daniel Bastard, Asia-Pacific director of Reporters Without Borders, agreed that a presidential pardon could be their best option: “The journalists still have the possibility to lodge an appeal with the supreme court, but the result will likely be the same as today. This is why we call on Myanmar’s president, a close ally of Suu Kyi, to grant pardon. This is a question of dignity.”

At the time of their arrest, they had been working on a story about a massacre of ten Rohingya Muslim men and boys in Rakhine state, allegedly by government forces and Buddhist civilians, during an anti-Rohingya crackdown by the government that sent nearly 700,000 Rohingya fleeing into Bangladesh amid mass rapes and killings and the razing of hundreds of villages.

This case is likely to cast a further chill on future efforts to investigate genocide allegations, said Bastard: “The scrutiny of the Rohingya crackdown is simply impossible, since Northern Rakhine has remained inaccessible to journalists. The military had the time to cover up the proofs of what is widely seen as a genocide. Journalists who would dare to investigate the matter, like Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo did, now know the price they would pay.”

A witness for the prosecution against the reporters told a Yangon court at a trial last April that police had entrapped the reporters by giving them secret documents and then arresting them for having the documents. The witness, Police Captain Moe Yan Naing, told the court that police had invited Wa Lone to dinner in Yangon on 12 December, and that Kyaw Soe went with him.

“Police Brigadier General Tin Ko Ko gave the documents to Police Lance Corporal Naing Lin and told him to give them to Wa Lone and said that when Wa Lone comes out of the restaurant, the Htaunt Kyant regional police force has to entrap him and arrest him,” Reuters reported Moe Yan Naing telling the court on 20 April. “Police Brigadier General Tin Ko Ko told the police members, ‘If you don’t get Wa Lone, you will go to jail.’”

Yan Naing later received an undisclosed prison sentence for violating Myanmar’s Police Disciplinary Act. The officer’s family, meanwhile, were evicted from police housing in Naypyitaw less than 24 hours after his testimony, Reuters reported. When he handed down his ruling, High Court Judge Aung Naing stated that the court had been unable to determine if the reporters had indeed been entrapped by police.

The treatment of the reporters has been met with global rebukes and demands for their release since their 2017 arrests.

“We are outraged by this blatant attack on press freedom. We call for authorities to release them immediately,” Reuters’ Adler said in a statement the day after their arrests.

“We call on local authorities to immediately, unconditionally release Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo,” said the Committee to Protect Journalists. “These arrests come amid a widening crackdown which is having a grave impact on the ability of journalists to cover a story of vital global importance.”

The reporters were included in Time magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year accolade awarded to persecuted journalists around the world.

The violent crackdown against the Rohingya was met with UN investigations and calls for prosecutions. The UN recommended that top Myanmar military commanders be investigated for genocide, and called out Myanmar’s civilian leader, former pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, for failing to stop the violence or even to acknowledge it. Myanmar state media under her control had roundly rejected anti-Rohingya atrocity allegations as “fake news”.

Suu Kyi met further rebukes for staying quiet on the case of the reporters, with calls for her Nobel peace prize to be rescinded.

“While she has always been a politician, she used to be a politician that stood for democracy and human rights, including freedom of the press,” said US diplomat Bill Richardson, who has known Aung San Suu Kyi for 25 years. “She has clearly failed to champion these issues since coming to power. Her government has been as enthusiastic about jailing journalists and government critics as the military government that preceded hers.”

Amal Clooney, a human rights lawyer on the reporters’ legal team, appealed to Suu Kyi in September after their sentencing: “You fought for so many years to be freed from the same prison where they now sit and now you have the power to actually remedy this injustice today if you wanted to.”

As for the future awaiting the country’s journalists, Reporters Without Borders’ Bastard is blunt: “There is no free press anymore when the government dictates red lines that cannot be crossed by journalists. It is a black day for independent press and Myanmar democracy.”