Reuters Charges Expose Military's Power Over Courts

By The Irrawaddy 14 July 2018

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! Yangon’s West District Court charged two Reuters reporters, Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo, under the Official Secrets Act on July 9. Did the court make the decision independently? If it did, does it threaten press freedom? U Sein Win, from the Myanmar Journalism Institute, and U Zeya Hlaing, an editor and a member of the Myanmar Journalists Network, join me to discuss this. I’m The Irrawaddy Burmese editor, Ye Ni.

As you know, Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo have been charged under the Official Secrets Act. The court accepted the charge after the two were detained for seven months and 22 prosecution witnesses testified at the court. The president and chief editor of the Reuters news agency immediately released a statement saying that the charge is groundless and there is no legal evidence against the two. According to our own study, the case was not well established by the police. One of the prosecution witnesses, [former] police Captain Moe Yan Naing, testified that the two reporters were set up. And police Corporal Khin Maung Lin was not presented to the court even though he was originally included in the list of prosecution witnesses. This aroused suspicion. State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, in her interview with Japanese news agency NHK, said about the case of the Reuters reporters that there may have been violations of the law and that she would wait for the court’s decision. And now the court has accepted the charge. Ko Sein Win, did you see any strong evidence presented to the court against the two by prosecution witnesses?

Sein Win: The testimonies of the prosecution witnesses were predetermined. The police chief might have given instructions that the two be caught anyway. This was revealed by the account of the insider. Despite this, we are shocked by the court’s decision to accept the charge for trial. Not only the police, even State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said the two were not real journalists and that they had violated the [Official] Secrets Act not only in her meeting with [US diplomat] Bill Richardson but also in her interview with NHK. So their violation was predetermined. And we didn’t see any strong evidence against the two presented to the court. Procedures were skipped and the court finally accepted the charge. Yes, it is true that the judge can accept or reject a case based on his reasoning. But in my opinion there was no concrete evidence against the two.

YN: What do you think, Ko Zeya Hlaing? The Home Affairs Ministry has influence [over the judiciary]. What’s more, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has made such a comment. Would the judge dare to decide independently?

Zeya Hlaing: I know some judges who I became acquainted with at seminars. They said they don’t want to handle media cases because they are very wary of them. Frankly speaking, the corruption of the judicial system has already triggered a debate in Parliament. The judges are pressured from various sides. There might be pressure from the press, as in the Reuters case. There might be pressure from authorities. And other organizations are keeping an eye on them. So I’m sure it is stressful for them. Also, they don’t get money [from defendants or plaintiffs], so they will be very distressed and may want to conclude the case as soon as possible.

As I’ve said, authorities are putting pressures on them, and since the case concerns the Ministry of Home Affairs it is quite difficult for them to handle. The Home Affairs Ministry has set the two up in this plot from the very beginning. I said it is a plot because the script had already been written. One of the actors, police Captain Win Yan Naing, spoke about the part he was asked to play and said it was a setup. He was then silenced with imprisonment. It is very simple. And Corporal Khin Maung Lin, mentioned by Ko Ye Ni, was put out of our sight. It is very simple. Our lives are funny, to put it ironically. The Home Affairs Ministry, which plays a big role in the executive and judicial branches, could make [the accused mastermind] of the assassination [of prominent lawyer U Ko Ni] at an airport in front of many people disappear at a herbal park in Naypyitaw and also arrest [the two reporters] without any supporting evidence. This shows that there is no freedom and there is no legal protection for us. [Authorities] have organized a lot of press conferences [about the Rakhine issue]. They [police] called [the two reporters] and gave them documents. And Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested before they even knew what the documents were about.

The case was exaggerated and labeled a breach of state security and a leak of state secrets. And the two were labeled traitors. The two, being journalists, went [to Rakhine State] to find out if there was a massacre of people as alleged by the international community. So if [the authorities] assume the massacre is a state security, then we have reason to rationally suspect that [authorities] support the ism of killing. Society and concerned authorities need to boldly reveal the truth.

YN: Setting aside the legal aspects of the case, I would like to approach it based on democratic norms and values since we are undergoing a democratization process. The best example of this is found in the United States. In the time of President [Richard] Nixon, a 4,000-page report by the US Department of Defense about their failing war in Vietnam was leaked. Newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post made detailed reports about it. And the executive authorities including President Nixon and the Department of Defense put pressure on the court, accusing those newspapers of dangerously exposing state secrets. The court ruled in favor of press freedom, saying it was necessary for the people. In the case of Reuters, [authorities] first said it was a state secret. But after the case [of the massacre] was exposed, the Tatmadaw [military] said it was not a state secret, corrected the label and punished the perpetrators. But then the lawsuit was not withdrawn and instead continued to proceed. Is that a red light sign for press freedom?

SW: It mainly concerns judicial independence. You’ve mentioned the case during the time of President Nixon in the US. In another case concerning state secrets, politicians asked Congress to take harsh action against [US whistleblower Edward] Snowden. They called him a traitor because US secrets were exposed to its rivals and enemies like Russia and China. They said national interests were undermined by the leaks. They also asked Congress to file lawsuits against newspapers like The Guardian and The Washington Post that reported on the leaks. It is interesting to note that the judge ruled that newspapers had nothing to do with it. The press has freedom. What the press exposes is no longer a secret. The court ruled that only Snowden was responsible for it and declared the press not guilty. Congressmen demanded harsh action against the press, but they lost.

This shows that judicial independence is the most important factor. As Ko Zeya has said, there is no judicial independence in our country. Most of the judiciary has to dance to the tune [of upper-level authorities].  At least that is the public perception. It is bad that it has a negative public image.

But in a democracy there must be judicial independence and press freedom. No democracy will thrive without them. There won’t be a functioning democracy without them. There will only be a sham and nominal democracy.

YN: Ko Zeya Hlaing, as the Reuters reporters were charged under the Official Secrets Act for their investigative report, will this deter others from doing the same thing with injustice in the future?

ZH: There are many threats. I mean there is more than one law that threatens press freedom. And the Reuters case is a high-profile case that the international community knows about. Our job is to make sure that authorities and those mandated by the people function well in their positions and to find out if they are violating the trust of people who rely on them. Speaking of the Reuters case, because of the investigative report, responsible officials have been punished. But those who exposed the case have also been put behind bars. So this is injustice. This is a direct threat to [press] freedom and is also intended to produce a chilling effect. It is like saying, ‘Don’t try to find out what we don’t want you to know; you saw what happened to the Reuters reporters.'”

If they are right, they need to conceal nothing. They should boldly reveal. Since the problem broke out I have said that it is not enough to just shout that my hands are not stained with blood. Rather, our society should have the courage to unfold the hands and show that they are not stained with blood.

Especially if authorities are not brave enough to be honest about the truth, it will be very difficult for us to establish a democratic society. We journalists make investigative reports to seek a balance, and those responsible have been punished as a result. But those who exposed the case are detained and charged. People in our society know if it is reasonable or not.

YN: Thank you for your contributions!

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.