Two Reuters journalists were jailed in Myanmar after investigating allegations of genocide against the Rohingya.
The sentencing of the journalists came just over a week after the UN released an official report referring to the actions of Myanmar authorities as genocide. The report called the persecution of the Rohingya people an “ethnic cleansing” and called upon the international community to hold military leaders accountable. Myanmar officials have rejected the findings, according to the BBC.
Two journalists – Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28 – were on assignment with Reuters investigating reports related to ethnic cleansing in 2017. In February 2018, they authored a special report, which appeared on the Reuters site, alleging the extrajudicial killings of ten men from a remote village in the Rakhine state. The official government report exonerated the security forces. According to that report, the ten men had attacked Myanmar security forces with knives and swords, only to be shot in retaliation.
The Reuters journalists alleged that the government falsely reported what happened. According to the journalists, the men were forcibly taken from the village by government forces, marched to a hill, and shot and/or stabbed. Their bodies were left in a shallow ten-person grave.
The Reuters report includes photo evidence that shows the men before and after their deaths. Photos depict remains at the site of the reported ten-person grave – skulls, spines, torn clothing, and hair.
The journalists were detained in December 2017 and charged with violating Myanmar’s Open Secrets Act in July 2018. They pled not guilty. Stephen Adler, Reuters editor-in-chief, told CNN that the journalists were detained in December in an attempt to suppress the story. During their six-month-long trial, attorneys on behalf of the journalists argued that they had been set-up by the military, according to Aljazeera.
On Sept. 3 the journalists were sentenced to seven years in prison.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch have already condemned the sentencing, joined by the governments of Germany, France, and Britain. The European Union previously asked Myanmar officials to drop the charges in July. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has also publicly asked Myanmar to free the journalists.
The wives of Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone spoke publicly on Sept. 4, asking the government to free their husbands, despite anti-media sentiment expressed by officials.
The sentencing has drawn further attention to allegations from the UN and highlighted criticisms of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of Myanmar’s National League for Democracy (NLD). Suu Kyi reportedly accused the journalists of violating the Official Secrets Act prior to their sentencing. Suu Kyi received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her work to create a democratic society in Myanmar, free from military rule.
Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone are not the only journalists who have been jailed in Myanmar. Myanmar’s criminal defamation laws resulted in the detention of multiple journalists in 2017. Three journalists in June 2017 were detained for covering an event held by an outlawed group, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Jailing journalists for doing their job is a clear violation of the freedom of the press. A functioning press is a key element of a functioning democracy, and crackdowns will only further deteriorate the relationship between Myanmar and the international community. The timing of the sentencing of Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone highlights the government’s disregard for rights of specific populations in Myanmar.
It is up to the leaders of Myanmar to prove their commitment to freedom of the press by releasing Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone and allowing journalists to operate free from fear of detention. Releasing these journalists won’t change the reality of the alleged genocide that occurred in the Rhakine state. It will, however, demonstrate good faith and show a commitment to acknowledging truths, no matter how difficult.
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