Reuters Reporters Sentenced: A “Hammer Blow” Against Media Freedom And Myanmar’s Transition To Democracy

On Monday September 3, two Reuters journalists were found guilty of breaching a law regarding state secrets in Myanmar after their reporting of a massacre of Rohingya men. The case, which has sparked international outcry, no longer affects simply the two journalists involved, but has become a symbol for the state of Myanmar’s transition to democracy and press freedom.

The case

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were jailed on December 12, 2017 while investigating the killing of 10 Rohingya men and boys, and after 39 court appearances and 265 days of imprisonment, the two were found guilty of breaching the Official Secrets Act and sentenced to seven years in prison, reports Reuters.

This ruling comes despite witnesses and police officials corroborating what the accused reporters had previously stated. The reporters had told the court that two police officials gave them papers at a restaurant in Yangon just moments before they were arrested, framing them. A police witness testified the that restaurant meeting was a set up to entrap the journalists for breaching the Official Secrets Act, and has since been jailed for a year for violating police regulations. Another police officer told the court that he had burned the notes he made at the time of the reporters arrest, without explaining why. Furthermore, a police major conceded that he information allegedly found on the reporters wasn’t actually a secret. Outside of the courtroom, officials also admitted that the killings under investigation had in fact taken place.

These confessions and confirmations of the reporters stories were apparently not enough to stop the Myanmar government from punishing Lone and Soe Oo for their truthful reporting, and alleged breach of the Offical Secrets Act, signalling a serious flaw in the rule of law, and democratic institutions in Myanmar, not to mention a neglect for the lives of innocent human beings.

“A hammer-blow against media freedom”

The prosecution of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo has become a “landmark press freedom case in Myanmar,” and a test of the nation’s transition to democratic governance since the end of decades of rule by a military junta, reports Reuters.

A free and fair press is crucial to a democracy as it facilitates a functioning public sphere where journalists act as watchdogs over the government. In the World Press Freedom Index, ‘Reporters Without Borders,’ rank the worlds 180 countries on the state of their news media in terms of freedom. In 2010, Myanmar sat at number 174 just ahead of countries like Iran and North Korea. After the National League for Democracy was elected in 2015, Myanmar jumped 43 places, to 131, suggesting that the new government was making a difference to the countries media institutions and therefore the potential for a functioning and informed public sphere. The imprisonment of the two Reuters reporters has put this theory into question, as Myanmar have now dropped six places in the 2018 index to 137.

Deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division Phil Robertson has called the decision to imprison the two reporters a “hammer-blow against media freedom,” as the whole process and outcome is seen as a power move by the government to intimidate other journalists to avoid reporting on human rights violations by the Myanmar army.

Wa Lone himself spoke about the decisions, calling it both unfair and one sided, and stated that it [the verdict] threatened Myanmar’s democracy and freedom of the press.

“I would like to say it’s very disappointing as it’s destroyed the system of our country and the way we would like to be. We will continue to face it,” he said as he was driven away to begin his sentence.

International response

The story of these two journalists has garnered international response and condemnation. During the court hearings, UN Secretary General António Guterres and leaders from several Western countries had called for the reporters’ release, and after the verdict, the support for the journalists has only risen. After the verdict, Scot Marciel, the U.S. ambassador to Myanmar, said the ruling was “deeply troubling” for everybody who had struggled for media freedom in the country.

Reuters chief editor, Stephen J. Adler, commented that the reporters had been convicted without evidence of wrongdoing, and in the face of evidence of a police set up. The verdict, he said is “a major step backward in Myanmar’s transition to democracy.”

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has also spoken out, calling for the Myanmar government to reverse the ruling, the most senior official to add his voice to issue.

“Wa Lone & Kyaw Soe Oo shd be commended—not imprisoned—for their work exposing human rights violations & mass killings. Freedom of religion & freedom of the press are essential to a strong democracy,” he wrote on Twitter.

Another voice, this time from the U.S., ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said that the United States would become more vocal about the situation. On Monday, she called for their immediate, unconditional release, saying that it is “clear to all that the Burmese military has committed vast atrocities.”

“In a free country, it is the duty of a responsible press to keep people informed and hold leaders accountable. The conviction of two journalists for doing their job is another terrible stain on the Burmese government,” Haley said.

The trial of Lone and Soe Oo may be over, but the fight for justice will go on. So too will the decline of Myanmar’s press freedom, and in turn, democratic integrity. It is now clear to all journalists and media outlets in Myanmar, that anyone who dares reveal the atrocities of the army or the administration will face prosecution. Such intimidation and injustice is only going to drive Myanmar back to it’s controlled and censored past, or at the least, stagnate it’s transition to democracy.