A court in Myanmar's city Yangon has found two reporters from the local Reuters bureau guilty of breaching the 1923 Official Secrets Act, handing down jail sentences of seven years each to both Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.
Yin Yadanar Thein, Program Manager at Free Expression Myanmar (FEM) and Myanmar Journalism Institute (MJI)'s Head of Training Sein Win talk about reactions from Myanmar's media community.
Seven years in jail for Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo – did you expect this verdict?
YY: Yes, we expected it – though of course we couldn't know the exact length of the prison term. Even though the Reuters journalists' defense lawyers had presented evidence that the documents they were arrested with did not relate to national secrets anymore, it was the reputation of the Myanmar military that was at stake. So it would not have been easy to release them. There was going to be a verdict of imprisonment against the Reuters journalists.
SW: I expected it too but what I didn't expect was that the sentence would be that harsh. It is difficult for the judges here to be independent. Especially if it is a case that affects the main powers, the government or the military, they are in a difficult position. They are under pressure from the public who want to find the truth; on the other hand, they have traditionally been influenced by the other pillars of the state like the executive or the military, the security sector. Overall, this verdict is too much, I think. It is a very disappointing moment for us.
Detained Reuters journalists Wan Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo arrive at Insein court in Yangon, Myanmar on August 27, 2018.
How did the judge justify this harsh punishment?
SW: This is a case where even the witness from the prosecution side said it was a plot, the accused were set up – a police officer himself told court that in his statement. The narrative of this trial is very clear. One of the key points in the Officials Secrets Act is to whom the culprits will sell or pass on the secret information. In this case, there is no evidence at all of this! This trial was just a joke.
YY: In each country, there is an Official Secrets Act. But in this case, we have to find out: Is this an official secret or is this about the public interest? Because the Reuters journalists just revealed the wrongdoings of the military in northern Rakhine state. It is clear that this is not a national secret. We, the people, have the right to know what wrongdoings they have committed and also the victims of those wrongdoings have the right to justice.
How has the media community reacted to this verdict?
SW: All Facebook accounts especially among the circle of journalists are flooded with statements condemning the verdict. It is very clear that journalists are very disappointed.
What kind of message does this ruling send to journalists? What kind of impact do you expect on journalists' work?
SW: These two journalists exposed the truth about what happened in Inn Din village – which is actually a murder case. A group of villagers was killed. But it is said that this is a national secret. So the message is: "Don't go for investigative journalism! Don't go find the truth! If you are a reporter, as long as you report positive stories or the information the government or military want to sell, you will be safe. But if you find the truth, you are in danger." This is the message sent across to the journalists.
How about the general public? Have people, has civil society followed this case?
YY: Yes. Of course, all civil society organisations are aware of it. And on the way here, I just spoke to the taxi driver, even the drivers are aware of this case. Of course, they cannot talk about the technical points of the case but they know it is something wrong, made up by the military. And on Saturday, September 1, a group of human rights activists and journalists were marching to call for the release of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. So not only the international governments, also local organizations have been watching this case, not only the freedom of expression or media groups like us. They are standing up for humanity and justice.
SW: There are also two groups who agree with the verdict. One are supporters of the military, the former establishment. They want to protect what the military did in Rakhine, so they are blaming journalists for exposing it. And interestingly, there is another group who are strong supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi and the ruling party. They want to protect the civilian government, believing that criticism of the civilian government could weaken it and benefit the military. So these are complicated issues, and people are confused as well.
What should the media community do?
SW: Even though the situation is difficult, you have to keep fighting for freedom and truth. Even if the government or military may think this case will deter journalists, it won't work out. We have been seeing it in the last decades, long prison terms for journalists and others who work for finding the truth. This morning I saw that many youth spoke out against the verdict. So truth will never die.
YY: Journalists are already doing a lot. Many have blacked out their Facebook profiles or a part of their newspapers. Others are protesting in the street. But some are still following the military and blaming international media. So instead of undermining media freedom by attacking international media, all the media community should start calling for media freedom and supporting brave journalists.
What does the Reuters case mean for media development in Myanmar?
SW: We had media development outside the country, in an exile community with exile media. And now we have roughly 5,000 journalists inside the country – with most, it is still work in progress. I am really positive after seeing this morning on Facebook how many young journalists are eager to fight for the truth and work for professionalism. That is very positive. But politically, not only the journalists but also the international media development agencies are under pressure because of the rise of so-called nationalism. It is a difficult time.
YY: From my personal view, today feels like a funeral day for media freedom – that the court decided like this, despite all the international attention. Ever since the country opened up and pre-publication censorship was abolished, we have always pointed out that this is not enough, that many repressive laws against media freedom still exist in Myanmar. We must repeal and change those laws.
Do you have hopes that the verdict might be changed, e.g. when Reuters launch an appeal?
SW: Aung San Suu Kyi has said she wants to stay away from the judiciary, does not want to influence it. Now is the time for her government to intervene. The President can pardon the journalists if they really want to promote press freedom. So the ball is in the hands of the government.
Interview: Thomas Baerthlein/Eva Mehl