A Myanmar court has sentenced two Reuters journalists to seven years in prison for breaking the Official Secrets Act while investigating a massacre of Rohingya Muslims.
Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were originally detained in December 2017 after working on an investigation into the mass killing of a number of Rohingya villagers in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
The violence was part of a conflict which the UN has described as a form of “ethnic cleansing,” with military operations forcing more than 700,000 Rohingya, a minority Muslim group, to flee Myanmar to Bangladesh.
The two journalists were charged with breaching the colonial-era act, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison, in July. The two men, both Myanmar nationals, pleaded not guilty.
The verdict was due last Monday, but the judge delayed it saying he was too ill to attend court that day.
Following the guilty verdict at the Yangon court Kyaw maintained the pair’s innocence, but added that they were unsurprised by the verdict. “We didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “We’re not exactly shocked by the verdict.”
The reporters were bustled from the court where a small crowd of supporters momentarily blocked policemen from pushing them into a vehicle to take them back to jail.
Than Zaw Maung, a lawyer for the reporters, said: “This is disappointing (and a blow) to democracy, rule of law and press freedom.”
Both journalists testified in court that two police officers, who they had not previously met, had given them papers relating to their investigation during a meeting in a Yangon restaurant. Shortly after, they were arrested by plainclothes officers.
In April, a Myanmar police officer, Moe Yan Naing, testified that he had witnessed a plot by senior police to frame the two journalists by planting secret documents on them.
The case has been viewed as a litmus test of press freedom and democratic rights in the Southeast Asian country. Monday’s verdict prompted immediate international censure and increased criticism of Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has also faced a loss in support for her handling of the Rohingya issue.
In a statement, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet condemned the sentence, demanding it be “quashed and for them to be released, along with all other journalists currently in detention for their legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of expression.”
The verdict has also been derided by leading European nations with France, Germany and Britain all issuing firm statements in response.
“They did nothing but support the truth in Rakhine,” said a statement issued by the German Foreign Ministry. “Their arrest and harsh punishment help to intimidate other critical and independent journalists in Myanmar.”
Both men have been in custody for almost nine months. Kyaw Soe Oo has a three-year-old daughter, while Wa Lone has yet to see his newborn daughter who was born just three weeks ago.
Following the announcement of the verdict Kyaw Soe Oo’s wife, Chit Su Win, burst into tears, according to a Reuters report.
Reuters Editor-in-Chief Stephen Adler said the conviction was “a sad day” for the organization, the two men and “the press everywhere,” adding that the verdict “must be corrected by the Myanmar government as a matter of urgency.”
Human Rights Watch Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson also condemned the decision.
“This conviction of the 2 Reuters reporters is a hammer blow against media freedom in #Myanmar, showing just how afraid the #Tatmadaw & #Myanmar government are of investigative journalism and critical commentary customarily found in a real democracy,” he tweeted, referring to the country’s military and civilian authorities.
The Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay did not responded to CNN’s request for comment about the verdict.
Last August, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims started fleeing across the Myanmar border into Bangladesh into what has since become the world’s biggest refugee camp. Many of those who crossed the border have recounted horrific stories of being driven from their homes under threat of death.
Last month, an independent United Nations investigation into alleged human rights abuses carried out against the Rohingya called for the country’s military leaders to be investigated and prosecuted for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
The damning report contains allegations of murder, imprisonment and sexual violence against the Rohingyas, carried out by the Myanmar military. The report alleges the military attacks were carried out under the guise of a crackdown on terrorists, and against a backdrop of impunity that effectively placed military leaders above the law.
Myanmar’s military has repeatedly denied that it has deliberately attacked unarmed Rohingya. Instead, the authorities insist that it only targets Rohingya militants, mostly from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgent group that are alleged to have launched deadly attacks on police posts.
In the past, the United Nations has called the alleged campaign of violence, including mass killings, rape and the burning of Rohingya villages by Myanmar government forces a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” while UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee has said that the attacks bear the “hallmarks of genocide.”
Reuters published a special investigation earlier this year that featured Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s bylines.
It documented the killing of 10 Rohingya men reportedly carried out by Buddhist villagers and Myanmar troops. Reuters described the groundbreaking report as the first time that soldiers and paramilitary police had been implicated in testimony from security personnel.
The report used photographs, reporting and interviews conducted in Myanmar and Bangladesh to reconstruct the final moments of the dead men, who were fishermen, shopkeepers, teenage students and a religious teacher.
The Myanmar military has since admitted its forces had a role in the killings, and jailed seven soldiers.
Following last month’s UN report Facebook banned 20 organizations and individuals in Myanmar, including a senior military commander, from using its service and acknowledged that it was “too slow” to prevent the spread of “hate and misinformation” in the country.
Wa and Kyaw’s imprisonment has also led to increased pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi, with activists and commentators calling on her government to issue a pardon.
Suu Kyi was feted around the world for helping transition the country from military junta to semi-democracy, but now the legacy of the Nobel laureate is in doubt.
“I hope for the sake of these two reporters and their families that ASSK… issues the amnesty,” tweeted Sean Connelly, director at the Southeast Asia at the Lowy Institute, an Australian think-tank, referring to Suu Kyi by her initials.
“Her government has already done extraordinary damage to press freedom in Myanmar, in service of a cover up of crimes against humanity.”
Reuters chief Adler said: “This is a major step backward in Myanmar’s transition to democracy and it cannot be squared with the rule of law or freedom of speech.”
He added that his organization “will evaluate how to proceed in the coming days, including whether to seek relief in an international forum.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists also condemned the convictions. “Today’s ruling against Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo on bogus charges marks a new press freedom low for Myanmar,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative.
“The process that resulted in their convictions was a travesty of justice and will cast Myanmar as an anti-democratic pariah as long as they are wrongfully held behind bars. We call on Myanmar’s civilian authorities to immediately release the journalists.”