‘We Urge Authorities to Value Press Freedom and Protect Journalists’

By The Irrawaddy 23 December 2017

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss the recent arrest of two Reuters reporters Ko Wa Lone and Ko Moe Aung. They were arrested for alleged violation of the Official Secrets Act for acquiring information about the conflicts in northern Rakhine State. We’ll discuss this from legal and journalistic points of view. U Sein Win of the Myanmar Journalism Institute and U Than Zaw Aung of the Myanmar Media Lawyers’ Network join me to discuss this. I’m The Irrawaddy Burmese editor Ye Ni.

As you know, two more journalists have been arrested, and this time under the Official Secrets Act. So far, we have only heard about the allegations from one side, and not yet the response of the detainees. Lawyers and families have not yet been allowed to see the two. As far as I’m concerned, detainees have the right to a lawyer. Ko Than Zaw Aung, will you explain this?

Than Zaw Aung: They have the right to see families, lawyers and other guests. The Myanmar Police Manual and Section 50 of the Code of Criminal Procedure restrict detaining the accused for more than a permitted period of time as well as allow detainees to see lawyers and visitors. But I heard that [in the case of the two journalists] families still don’t know their whereabouts.

YN: The arrest has really shocked many journalists because the two were making investigative reports about the Rakhine issue amid the international community’s allegations about killings and human rights violations. In a recent interview in Naypyitaw, [NLD spokesperson] U Win Htein asked the journalists not to be naïve. So this led to this question—whether the two journalists were set up because of Reuters’ investigative reports about conflicts in northern Rakhine State. Ko Sein Win, how do you assess this?

Sein Win: As far as I know, the two were invited by police officers to a restaurant. And they were inspected on their way back, and documents were found on them. I can understand if all passersby were checked because of unusual circumstances. But this was not the case, and that of course raises our suspicion. We feel it as a warning sign to those who are reporting the same issue. Taking a look at the number of journalists who have been jailed for doing their jobs, you can see that many media agencies have been subjected—the case of reporters from The Irrawaddy and DVB [Democratic Voice of Burma] in Shan State, Ko Kyaw Min Swe of The Voice, and the case of 7 Day’s report, and the case of a Turkish news agency’s journalists and fixer, and the last one, the case of the Reuters reporters. All of these cases are related to the security sector. This is alarming. As a result, some news agencies that were strongly critical have stopped criticizing. It is a warning message to journalists. “If you touch this, you will face the consequences.” But there are certain things that I’m pleased with. Arakanese reporters were at first emotional in their reporting about the Rakhine issue, but now they have looked for facts. It is very valuable. I see it as a positive trend in journalism.

YN: Speaking of the charges targeted at journalists, Article 66 (d) of the Telecommunications Law and Section 505 (b) of the Penal Code were applied in the past. This time, the Official Secrets Act was used against the Reuters reporters. Before this, the Unity Journal was prosecuted under this act under U Thein Sein’s government. Would you explain this act from a legal point of view?

TZA: The act is intended to prevent spying on matters that could harm the interests and security of the country. This is a British law, and later the UK reduced the penalties. The 1989 Official Secrets Act of the UK prescribes two years’ imprisonment and a fine or both. And countries like Malaysia and Singapore also implement the Official Secrets Act, but they have reduced jail terms and fines as well. But in Myanmar, the law remains unchanged.

Another problem is the conflict between laws. The Official Secrets Act is managed by the Home Affairs Ministry and the media law is managed by the Information Ministry. Though journalists work in line with journalistic ethics, their actions may violate one or another existing law. So, journalists are frequently prosecuted because of the conflicts between laws.

According to my study, the first case of prosecuting journalists under the Official Secrets Act happened in 1961. Journalist U Phoe Thauk Kyar made a report in Moe Gyo Newspaper about a commanders’ conference, which called for economic thrift among soldiers. He was charged under the Official Secrets Act for leaking the details of the commanders’ conference. That time, he was granted bail. The charge was dropped after the chairman of the Myanmar Journalists Association U Sein Win made a request to then Prime Minister U Nu. There were similar cases between now and then. Those charges were however understandable in the past, for example, in the time of President U Thein Sein, as it was a quasi-civilian government. However, such frictions under the new government are not a good sign. There is a need for review and reconsideration, I think.

YN: While journalists do their job to find the truth, they are accused of infringing on national security and legal action is taken in response. The interesting point is that according to the latest report, police have also detained some of the sources who the two journalists had met in Maungdaw for their reporting. And the Tatmadaw True News Information Team said in a statement that bodies buried in the graveyard of Inn Din village were found. It said legal action would be taken against any security personnel or soldier who breached the rule of engagement (ROE). So, we journalists should ask this—whether exposing the extrajudicial killings against the ROE amounts to violating the Official Secrets Act? What do you think, Ko Sein Win?

SW: The two journalists were looking for evidence to find out what happened in Buthidaung and especially in Maungdaw where killings happened. On the ground, civilians know why and how those killings were committed and who committed them. For journalists, quoting civilians is not enough; they are obliged to look for evidence and confirm. It is nothing to do with love or hatred. It is just about presenting the facts as they are. The two journalists are dutiful and are good journalists. They dug deep into the case, and they were arrested. I agree that countries need security acts to prevent spying by enemies. But journalists are not responsible to the government, but to the people. They have to inform the people of the truth. When a government makes a wrong decision, the whole country has to suffer. All the people are negatively impacted. So, only when investigative reporting is allowed without restriction, can checks and balances be carried out for the national interest. And I therefore think it is very wrong to restrict investigative reporting. And in the end, we will face the ill fate of the country as a result.

YN: This is the first case charged under the Official Secrets Act under the government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Unity Journal reporters faced the same charge under U Thein Sein’s government for reporting about a military factory. Ko Than Zaw Aung, what interesting points do you see when you compare the two cases?

TZA: Both in the case of Unity Journal and the case of Moe Gyo Newspaper journalist U Khin Maung Lay that happened before the Unity Journal case, they were charged only after they published the reports. But in the case of the Reuters journalists, they were arrested while they were collecting data. It is like there is a ban on pregnancy, and they were sued and arrested during the dating stage. This is the difference.

YN: As Ko Sein Win has said, the arrest of journalists is like breaking up the fledgling press freedom, and restricting the efforts to find out the truth goes against the interests of the nation and society. Information Minister U Pe Myint said that he has no information about the case. Considering this and what U Win Htein has said, the divide between the civilian government and the Home Affairs Ministry, that focuses on security and is overseen by the Tatmadaw, has become clearer. We don’t want journalists to be arrested while they are doing their jobs. We urge authorities to value press freedom and protect journalists.

Ko Sein Win, Ko Than Zaw Aung, thank you for your contributions!