THE International Press Institute has demanded the immediate release of two Reuters journalists jailed in Myanmar for allegedly possessing illegally acquired secret government documents. A Yangon North district court judge last week sentenced Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo to seven years in prison for violating the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, a piece of law widely used to crack down on critical reporting against the government.
The two reporters had pleaded not guilty, stating that they had been set up by the police while investigating mass killings of Rohingyas in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state. In reaction to the verdict, IPI executive director Barbara Trionfi called the sentence “an affront to press freedom”.
“This decision should be quickly overturned on appeal and both journalists should be freed,” Trionfi said. “Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have been punished for doing their job. It is a core function of journalism to investigate and cover the actions of governments and state institutions, including the military, even more so when serious allegations of violation of human rights have been raised, as in the case of Myanmar’s military forces.”
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were detained on December 12, 2017, while meeting with two police officers at a restaurant and have been behind bars since then.
Their arrest was in connection with articles they had written on the crisis in Rakhine state, where an estimated 655,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled from a fierce military crackdown on Rohingya militants.
The Ministry of Information in Myanmar said at the time that the journalists had been arrested for possessing illegally acquired secret government information and documents, allegedly given to them by the two police officers at the restaurant, who are also suspected of violating the Official Secrets Act.
A recent U.N. report stated that grave crimes were committed against the Rohingya by the armed forces of Myanmar and called for the prosecution of senior military leaders for their complicity in the mass killings and exodus.
IPI, a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists, which held its 2015 World Congress in Myanmar following a dramatic political opening in the country that brought an end to a decades-long military dictatorship, has called for the two journalists’ release since their arrest.
The case raises serious questions about the commitment of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi to press freedom, despite the Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s long fight for democracy in her homeland.
The sentence given to the two reporters has attracted international condemnation, including from the U.S. and UK governments as well as the United Nations.