Rights Groups Call for Immediate Release of Jailed Reuters Journalists

Reuters journalist Kyaw Soe Oo (C) is escorted out of the Insein township court in Yangon, Myanmar,
Reuters journalist Kyaw Soe Oo (C) is escorted out of the Insein township court in Yangon, Myanmar

Over 50 other human rights organizations from around the world, including Media Rights Agenda (MRA), have called on State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and the Myanmar authorities to immediately and unconditionally release two jailed Reuters reporters and 2018 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award honorees, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo,  rejecting their convictions as illegitimate.

The two men were arrested on December 12, 2017 and later sentenced on September 3, 2018 to seven years prison terms each under the Official Secrets Act as a punishment for investigating a massacre in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.

The groups used the opportunity of the letter to respond to Aung San Suu Kyi’s invitation for anyone who believes in the rule of law to point out why the judgment was problematic. She defended the conviction of the two men and made the invitation at the recent World Economic Conference which took place in Hanoi, Vietnam.

In their response, they pointed out that “contrary to her comments, the case is a clear attempt to restrict freedom of expression and independent journalism in Myanmar.” They reminded her that the two reporters were arrested “in the course of doing their job as professional journalists: investigating military operations in northern Rakhine State,” and pointing out that: “This investigation … was clearly in the public interest, and still is.”

They noted that the law that was used to prosecute them is the colonial-era Official Secrets Act which is one of a number of repressive laws that have been used to prosecute journalists and stymie media freedom in Myanmar.

Expatiating on the Act the letter noted that “it is broadly worded, and grants wide powers to the government to determine what classifies as a ‘secret’, adding “the entire Act goes well beyond the restrictions on the right to freedom of expression which are permitted under international human rights law on the grounds of national security.”

Puncturing the ground for the journalists’ conviction, the human rights groups pointed out again that even within the terms of the Official Secrets Act itself, conviction under Section 3.1 (c) requires that evidence should demonstrate that the accused had in their possession secret documents that “might be or is intended to be, directly or indirectly, useful to an enemy.” They noted that evidence and testimony presented during the pre-trial and trial hearings failed to demonstrate this was the case.

What was established at the trial, according to the groups were the facts that: the documents Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are accused of possessing are not secret, but contain information already in the public domain; there is no evidence of intent to turn documents over to an enemy or to harm the country; police testimony regarding the circumstances of their arrest was contradictory; police whistleblower credibly testified that the two journalists had been framed: namely, that police were ordered by their superiors to invite Wa Lone to a meeting so he could be handed documents and then immediately arrested; and that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were subject to ill-treatment after their initial arrest, including incommunicado detention for two weeks, hooding, and sleep deprivation.

In summary, the groups said they believe that that the journalists should never have been arrested in the first place, let alone prosecuted, convicted, and imprisoned. They added that the journalists’ trial, which was already manifestly unfair, was made more so by the repeated failure to uphold key tenets of the rule of law and to build a convincing evidence-based case against these journalists and therefore called for their immediate and unconditional release.