Myanmar’s High Court has rejected the appeals of two Reuters journalists imprisoned in Myanmar for breaking the Official Secrets Act while investigating a massacre of Rohingya Muslims.
Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were sentenced to seven years in prison last September, a ruling that cast a pall over Myanmar’s media community, and sparked increased international criticism of the country’s de facto leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Outside the court room on Friday, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s lawyer Than Zaw Aung said he would discuss with the two reporters and their families whether they would take their appeal further, including to the Supreme Court. The pair did not attend Friday’s hearing.
Stephen J. Adler, Editor-in-Chief of Reuters, said in a statement that the ruling was “yet another injustice among many inflicted upon Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.”
“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,” he said.
Following the ruling, Kyaw Soe Oo’s wife, Chit Su Win, told reporters that they were hopeful the pair would be released. “We were hoping to go to jail to welcome if they are released today but it’s not happening. We are very sad,” she said.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were originally detained in December 2017 during an investigation which helped uncover the killing of 10 Rohingya men in the western state of Rakhine. It served as evidence of Myanmar military abuses against Rohingya civilians there, despite repeated denials from the army and the government.
The killings they investigated were part of a campaign of rape, arson and murder which the military unleashed on the persecuted minority in August 2017, and which led to more than 720,000 Rohingya fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh. A UN fact-finding mission has called for several top generals to face charges of genocide over the crackdown.
The two journalists’ reporting did not sit well with the military leaders, who paraded them through a trial which human rights lawyer Amal Clooney declared a “sham” and “a miscarriage of justice.”
They were charged with breaching the Official Secrets Act, a rarely-used colonial-era law, for possessing documents relating to the massacre. But supporters of the pair have said they were set up, and police captain Moe Yan Naing later told the court he witnessed a plot by senior police to frame the two journalists. He was himself imprisoned not long afterwards.
During the trial the military confirmed that the massacre had taken place, and state media reported that seven soldiers were jailed for the killings. Yet still, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were sentenced to seven years in prison.
“It demonstrates the extent to which the military is still controlling significant portions of the judicial system,” Matt Smith, chief executive officer of advocacy group Fortify Rights, told CNN in December.
Throughout their many trial and hearing appearances, Wa Lone’s cheery smile and double thumbs became his trademark, despite being shackled and led everywhere by police. The two also continued to call for press freedom.
In December, the pair were among several journalists named as Time magazine’s Person of the Year 2018 under the banner “the Guardians.” It’s just one of several honors, awards and accolades the pair have received for their work while behind bars.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have always maintained their innocence. “We didn’t do anything wrong,” Kyaw Soe Oo said after their sentencing in September, though he added he was “not exactly shocked by the verdict.”
On November 20, the Yangon High Court allowed an appeal by the two journalists to go ahead. But their more than year-long incarceration has “sent a shiver through the national media, “said Yin Yadanar Thein, director of advocacy group Free Expression Myanmar.
“As a result there is an almost total media blackout on what is happening inside Rakhine state because journalists are too fearful to publish even the most basic information,” she added.
Suu Kyi has defended the reporters’ jailing, saying last year that they broke the law and their conviction had “nothing to do with freedom of expression at all.” She has also steadfastly defended the military’s actions in Rakhine, echoing assertions by the army that the crackdown was a legitimate response to attacks by Rohingya militants.
As well as accusing the international media of biased coverage of the Rohingya crisis, ministers in Suu Kyi’s government have called on domestic journalists to protect the reputation of the country.