Two journalists with international news agency Reuters have been jailed for seven years on a charge of the illegal possession of official documents in Myanmar. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had been investigating the allegations of state-sanctioned violence against the Rohingya Muslim community and claim they have been framed by the police.
This court ruling, made early on Monday morning, has provoked international outcry, fuelling widespread condemnation of the southeast Asian country’s alleged human rights abuses.
The journalists, citizens of Myanmar, have been in prison awaiting trail since their arrest in December 2017. They were discovered to be carrying official documents regarding the military’s unlawful execution of ten Rohingya men in the village of Inn Din in the Rakhine region. These documents had been handed over by the police only a short time before. An ex-policeman testified during the trial that he had witnessed senior police officers’ planning to entrap and frame the two journalists. The possession of these documents has been found to be illegal under the state secrets act, which dates from the nation’s colonial past.
The sentence comes as a blow to those hoping for greater press freedom inside the previously military-controlled country. Reuters’ Editor in Chief Stephen J Adler characterises the sentence as a “major step backwards” in the nation’s turbulent journey to democracy. “These two admirable journalists have already spent nearly nine months in prison on false charges designed to silence their reporting and intimidate the press. Without any evidence of wrongdoing and in the face of compelling evidence of a police set-up, today’s ruling condemns them to the continued loss of their freedom and condones the misconduct of security forces.”
In August, the UN released the results of its own investigation into alleged human rights abuses against the Rohingya, concluding that the military conducted a form of ethnic cleansing against the minority group, while claiming to be clamping down on terrorist activities. The violence has displaced over 70,000 Rohingya, who in fleeing from Myanmar to Bangladesh have formed the world’s largest refugee camp. The UN has called for Myanmar’s military leaders to be held to account for acts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
The military’s reaction to the accusations has shifted under the spotlight of international condemnation. Having previously cleared itself of the charges, Myanmar authorities have since held their own investigation and admitted that the massacre of the ten men did occur. They reject the characterisation of the wider conflict as genocide, however.
The Rohingya crisis has badly damaged the reputation of the nation’s first democratically elected civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi. While she still holds her Nobel peace prize, seven other bodies have seen fit to strip her of accolades, awarded for her efforts to further democracy, because she has not spoken out against the violence.