Media freedom in the dock in Myanmar

Media freedom in the dock in Myanmar

Two Myanmar reporters are about to hear whether they are to spend the next 14 years in jail for courageously carrying out their jobs.

They are accused of breaching the Official Secrets Act -- an arcane law dating back to the British colonial period. They have already been held in custody without bail for more than eight months.

The ruling was expected to be announced last week but was postponed because the presiding judge was ill. The fate of the two Reuters correspondents -- Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28 -- should be known later today. The landmark case has attracted substantial international interest and is being seen as a test of Myanmar's progress towards democracy.

"The case against and detention of the two Reuters journalists has had a devastating impact on press freedom in Myanmar, snuffing out what had previously been a pretty hopeful environment with the transition to democracy," said Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative on the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) based in Bangkok.

Both US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres have called for the journalists' immediate release. Other US politicians, including former president Bill Clinton, have urged the Myanmar government to free them.

Many have suggested that the country's president should pardon the pair. They include Kobsak Chutikul, an advisor to the Advisory Board on Rakhine, led by former Thai deputy prime minister Surakiart Sathirathai.

"The available option of a presidential pardon should be invoked so that the matter does not continue to weigh down the country," Mr Kobsak told Asia Focus. This may in fact be what happens if the two are convicted this week.

The two journalists were at the cutting edge of reporting on the military's controversial campaign in the war-torn Rakhine state in western Myanmar, having broken several stories of army misconduct there. In particular, they exposed a mass killing of Rohingya Muslims and other abuses involving soldiers and police in Inn Din, a village in Rakhine. Graphic pictures of the execution were later released by the Reuters news agency.

"We are not afraid or shaken. The truth is on our side. Whatever the situation is, we will not be shaken. They cannot make us weak," Wa Lone told reporters outside the court after last week's brief hearing. Journalists covering the appearance wore T-shirts that read "Free Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo" and "Journalism is not a crime".

The two journalists were arrested in mid-December in northern Yangon for allegedly possessing documents detailing security deployments in northern Rakhine. They said they were picked up right after being handed rolled-up documents in a prearranged meeting with police officers at a restaurant, in what police whistle-blower Moe Yan Naing told the court in April was a setup ordered by a senior police commander.

The police have presented a different version of events that has been marked with inconsistencies. Under cross-examination by defence lawyers, one police witness claimed he burned the initial police report documenting the arrest, to explain basic discrepancies. Another claimed he had not known how to fill out a police report.

The defence also got prosecutors to admit in court that the contents of the documents found on Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had already been published in state media.

At the time of their arrest the two men were continuing to investigate the massacre of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys by Myanmar security forces and local vigilantes in Inn Din in September last year.

In the face of media reports, the military later admitted to the massacre, after the Reuters reporters were arrested. In April the military said seven soldiers had been court-martialled and sentenced to 10 years in prison with hard labour for their part in the killings, though the country's independent media have been unable to verify this.

The irony is that the maximum sentence the journalists face is nearly double what the actual perpetrators of the crime received.

Earlier the journalists told the court that, during their initial interrogation, where they were denied sleep and placed in stressful positions, police said they could negotiate their early release if Reuters buried the investigation. However, it went on to be published in February under the title "Massacre in Myanmar".

The civilian government and military leaders have repeatedly denied allegations against security forces of mass killings, rape and arson made by refugees, They say soldiers were conducting a legitimate counterinsurgency operation against Muslim insurgents and militants. But a string of independent investigations by the UN and international human rights organisations have found the claims of widespread abuse to be credible.

The latest, most detailed report was published last Monday by the independent fact-finding mission appointed by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva 18 months ago.

It called for six high ranking members of the Myanmar military, including the Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and his deputy, Gen Soe Win, to be charged with genocide and crimes against humanity.

Their report called on the UN Security Council to refer the Myanmar situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC) or for an ad hoc international criminal tribunal to be created. The international community must act to end the culture of impunity that exists in Myanmar the fact-finding mission insisted.

The situation in Rakhine and the conduct of the military there is inextricably linked with the fate of the journalists.

"It would be terrible and highly ironic if the two Reuters reporters are convicted just as the UN fact-finding mission has found grounds for criminal investigations of genocide and other crimes against humanity," said Laetitia van den Assum, a former Dutch diplomat, human rights expert and member of the Kofi Annan Commission on Arakan.

"Their report confirms that the accused reporters were simply doing their job", she told Asia Focus.

But this case also has important consequences for the future of Myanmar's press freedom.

"The bogus charges have sent a clear message to all Myanmar reporters that if we're willing to harass and prosecute a top international news agency like Reuters, we will just as readily and easily crush you for reporting on sensitive issues like the Rohingya crisis," said Mr Crispin. "It has inevitably had a chilling effect on all media.

"The military and police are mainly to blame for this egregious violation of press freedom as they try to cover their tracks for abuses committed in Rakhine state and toward the Rohingya."

Others argue that it is intended as a broader threat to the press and civil society who are trying to investigate the situation in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states. "A conviction would send a chilling message to all who are trying to establish the truth," said Ms van den Assum.

But there are even broader implications in the way the case has been conducted, according to Mr Kobsak.

"Last week's postponement of a ruling until after the UN Security Council session on Myanmar seems too convenient to be coincidental," he noted. "And it calls into doubt the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law."

So after eight months in prison the two journalists are finally about to find out their fate. A conviction will certainly set the country's international reputation back even further.

"State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi is woefully on the wrong side of history in the Reuters case," said Mr Crispin.

"CPJ calls on her to stop hiding behind the courts and the notion of judicial independence -- in this clearly highly politicised case -- and assert her role as a pro-democracy icon to include being a champion of the free press."

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