In the midst of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Myanmar, (see the recent article by Osborne http://theowp.org/new-sound-evidence-of-crimes-against-humanity-in-myanmar/) a landmark decision is scheduled for July the 9th which will highlight the strength or lack thereof of Myanmar’s institutions. Two journalists for Reuters, Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, and Wa Lone, 32 are facing trial for violating the Official Secrets Act, a colonial-era holdover. If convicted the pair each face 14 years in jail. They were arrested during the course of their reporting on the killing of 10 Rohingya men and boys during the military crackdown on the Muslim minority. The two have been alleged by the prosecution to have obtained secrets that threaten national security. The defence, however, maintains that they have in fact been the target of a police operation aimed at preventing them from reporting. Reuters states that the journalists were arrested immediately after being handed documents by two policemen in a Yangon restaurant. Furthermore, Police Captain Moe Yan Naing has testified in court that he was ordered to hand one of the pairs some papers in order to “trap” them, the Washington Post reports.
The chief prosecutor in the case Kyaw Min Aung argued that “the information in the documents could be used to attack Myanmar security forces…” as well as positing that the mere possession of these documents was sufficient to establish guilt and the prosecution need not prove an intent to harm national security. Meanwhile the lawyer for the defence, Khin Maung Zaw, countered that, “the reporters’ unintentional, momentary possession of papers, wrongfully planted on them by police as part of an orchestrated trap, and without any knowledge of their contents, cannot be a basis for criminal charges under the Official Secrets Act.” A strong reaction to the case has come courtesy of Stephen J. Alder, Reuters’ President and Editor-in-Chief who said, “Freedom of the press is essential in any democracy, and to charge Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo under these circumstances, without any proof of their having done anything unlawful, would seriously undermine Myanmar’s constitutional guarantee of free speech.”
It would appear that Mr. Alder has hit upon the crucial point in these proceedings. Myanmar is a fledgling democracy and yet faces serious concerns about its future direction. Not only has the new government failed to adequately protect the Rohingya minority from military intervention, with up to 700 000 forced to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh, but Myanmar now faces elements of the government suppressing the reporting of said crisis. It remains to be seen whether these systemic issues have spread as far as the legal system. If the two reporters are found guilty it will mark the death of Myanmar’s newly discovered free press.
As recently as 2012, Myanmar loosened controls on press freedom but they are already trending in the wrong direction. Shawn Crispin of the Committee to Protect Journalists has argued that this case “marks a dramatic reversal in recent press freedom gains and augurs ill for the country’s delicate transition from military to elected rule.” Myanmar’s once commendable reform, culminating in the democratic installation of Nobel Peace Prize-winning Aung San Suu Kyi as de facto head of state has been gradually eroded, largely due to the treatment of the Rohingya people.
This case then stands as a crucial test for Myanmar’s press freedom. An independent media is an essential ingredient of accountability, especially in a country with a delicate democracy. It both better informs the populace and brings attention to violence and human rights violations, as it has in the case of the Rohingya crisis. All rests on the shoulders of Myanmar’s legal system and Judge Ye Lwin who will decide whether Myanmar is willing to condone a gagged media and unaccountable government.