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The Supreme Court of Myanmar has rejected the final appeal of two Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who have been sentenced to seven years in prison for receiving documents from police, thereby violating the Official Secrets Act, after investigating the killing of ten Rohingya Muslim men during a military crackdown. Despite claiming that they had been set up by the police, who had planted documents to frame them, they were arrested in December 2017, and the two have been detained for over 16 months. Myanmar Supreme Court Justice Soe Naing stated Tuesday that “[t]hey were sentenced for seven years and this decision stands, and the appeal is rejected,” providing no further specifics.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have continued to receive widespread support, including from the journalist community, human rights organizations, and the international community more broadly. Chit Su Win, the wife of Kyaw Soe Oo, stated that she was “‘very disappointed with the decision.’” Gail Gove, chief counsel of Reuters, stated in the aftermath of the ruling that “Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo did not commit any crime, nor was there any proof that they did…Instead, they were victims of a police setup to silence their truthful reporting. We will to do all we can to free them as soon as possible.” The Committee to Protect Journalists Southeast Asia representative Shawn Crispin said that the country had “criminalized independent journalism” and that “Myanmar authorities have committed a grave injustice,” with Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s conviction and sentence “an enduring stain on Myanmar’s reputation.” Myint Kyaw of the Myanmar Journalists Network stated to Al Jazeera that “‘[j]ournalists have got the message that they should avoid these kinds of issues.’” Furthermore, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East and Southeast Asia Nicholas Bequelin said that the ruling “compounds a grave injustice and marks a dark day for press freedom in Myanmar. The case shows the authorities’ resolve to ensure there can be no independent reporting on the military’s atrocities in Rakhine State – even at the cost of debasing the country’s judicial system.”
The U.S. embassy in Burma also issued a statement expressing disappointment in the Supreme Court’s ruling, which is just one conviction that “point[s] to an increasing intolerance for free speech in Myanmar.” The embassy further emphasized that “[j]ournalism, satire, peaceful protest, and other forms of legitimate expression should not be crimes in a democratic society.” A UN press briefing stated that the “Secretary-General remains concerned at the continued detention of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. It is unacceptable that these journalists were prosecuted for reporting on major human rights violations against the Rohingya in Rakhine State.” The briefing continued, “[t]he Secretary-General has repeatedly urged for their release and for the authorities to respect the right to freedom of expression and information.” Meanwhile, the UN Human Rights Office spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani said to Reuters that “the judiciary failed to act as an independent check on authorities.”
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s lawyer Khin Maung Zaw, handpicked by Aung San Suu Kyi, stated the two reporters’ families plan to seek a pardon by appealing to President Win Myint. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo previously saw their lower court appeal rejected in January. Information from their investigation was published in a final report in 2018, and in early April, they were among those awarded the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting for “exposing the military units and Buddhist villagers responsible for the systematic expulsion and murder of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar.” Meanwhile, seven soldiers were sentenced to prison for their involvement in the killings of the ten Rohingya men. Yet, the military has more generally exonerated itself of abuse in Rakhine State in spite of UN investigators calling for the prosecution of high-level military officials for genocide and crimes against humanity against the Rohingya.
As the reactions to the ruling clearly convey, the Myanmar Supreme Court’s ruling is an affront to the freedom of expression as a human right, and in accordance with the evidence, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo should be released. The court’s lack of explanation for the upholding of the two reporters’ conviction and sentence further points to a lack of transparency and a lack of judicial independence, all the way up to the country’s highest court. This violation of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s freedom of expression has been mirrored in the detaining of Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, a film director who criticized the military on social media; accusations of defamation against Ye Ni, an editor of The Irrawaddy, for supposedly unfair coverage of the conflict in Rakhine State; and charges of defamation against a group of individuals for live-streaming a satirical performance mocking the military. The ruling is another manifestation of the state’s continued use of repression and rights violations to silence its citizens despite the country’s transition to democracy.
Ultimately, the international community must apply pressure on Myanmar’s government and its top leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, who has yet to push for the dismantling of repressive laws put in place and used by the military regime, who has in fact enforced some of these laws which are in violation of international law and international human rights standards, and who has refused to call out the military for its tremendous violence against civilians. Some have called for targeted sanctions against Myanmar to push for political reform and an end to domestic oppression. Marzuki Darusman, Chair of the UN Myanmar Fact-finding Mission, which was created in 2017 to “establish facts and circumstances of the alleged recent human rights violations by military and security forces, and abuses, in Myanmar, in particular in Rakhine State,” has highlighted that the UN Security Council itself must refer the country to the International Criminal Court. Myanmar’s government and military must be held accountable and must address both its violations of its citizens’ rights to freedom of expression and its grave human rights violations in connection to ongoing conflict throughout the country, especially with respect to the Rohingya. The international community must also play a role, not merely through words, but through action.