‘A Hammer Blow for the Rule of Law’

By The Irrawaddy 3 September 2018

YANGON— The jailing on Monday of two Reuters reporters for seven years for breaching the outdated British colonial-era Official Secrets Act has been met with deep disappointment and condemned as a blow to the country’s justice system, press freedom and democratic transition.

The two journalists, Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo, had been detained for nine months since their arrest on Dec. 12 while investigating the killing of Rohingya Muslims in a village in Rakhine State.

Right groups, press freedom advocates, the United Nations, the European Union and countries including the US, UK, Denmark and Australia called for the immediate release of the two and an end to the arbitrary prosecution of journalists for doing their jobs.

Here are some reactions to the sentencing:

US Ambassador to Myanmar Scot Marciel at Yangon’s Northern District Court before the verdict was announced on Monday in the case of two Reuters journalists. / Myo Min Soe / The Irrawaddy

Scot Marciel, U.S. ambassador to Myanmar

“I am sad for Wa ‎Lone, Kyaw Soe Oo, and their families, but also for Myanmar. It is deeply troubling for everybody who struggles so hard for media freedom here. One has to ask if this process will increase or decrease the confidence that people here have in their justice system.”

The Embassy of Denmark in Myanmar

“This is a tragedy for them and an injustice carried out under a government which came to office based on a strong commitment to rule of law. What we have seen today is not rule of law. The Official Secrets Act violates the right to freedom of expression, a right which many members of government and Parliament fought and went to prison for under the military regime.

“Instead of being celebrated for their efforts to expose the conduct of Myanmar’s military, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have now been found guilty in spite of the lack of evidence to support the prosecutor’s claims.

“The Embassy of Denmark calls on the government of Myanmar to undo this injustice, release Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo immediately and launch an investigation into allegations that they were set up by Myanmar’s police force.” (from a statement)

Dan Chugg, British Ambassador to Myanmar

“Speaking on behalf of the British Government and EU member states, we are extremely disappointed with this verdict and sentencing. This case has cast a long shadow over freedom of expression and the rule of law in Myanmar. In any democracy, journalists must be free to carry out their jobs without fear or intimidation; this verdict has undermined freedom of the media in Myanmar. The verdict has also struck a hammer blow for the rule of law. We have attended the trial throughout and we believe that the judge has ignored the evidence presented to him as well as ruling against Myanmar’s own laws. This is a bad day for Myanmar and we call for the journalists to be released immediately.” (from a statement)

The Embassy of Netherlands in Myanmar

“The Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands regrets the conviction of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo and will continue to urge the government to use the means at its disposal to ensure their immediate release. This was not only a verdict to two individuals, but also a milestone verdict on the credibility of Myanmar’s press freedom.” ( from a statement)

Bertil Lintner in Yangon during his visit to The Irrawaddy office in 2013. / The Irrawaddy

Bertil Lintner, veteran journalist and Myanmar analyst

“It’s a sad day for press freedom in Burma but, at the same time, I want to encourage Burma’s many brave and good journalists to carry on their important job. Without them, there would be a great void that cannot be filled by foreign reporters.”

Nicholas Coppel, Australia Ambassador to Myanmar

“Australia has watched this case very closely. Embassy staff have attended all the hearings and heard the evidence, including conflicting evidence presented by prosecution witnesses. We were therefore disappointed to hear that the journalists were found guilty.

“An independent media and an independent judiciary are both vital parts of a well-functioning democracy. Myanmar’s democratic transition is not complete. Myanmar needs a strong and functioning justice system, and greater media freedom.” (from a statement)

Johan Hallenborg, Minister Counsellor to Myanmar, Embassy of Sweden

“EU member states are deeply concerned about what happened today. We believe that the two journalists were merely doing their work. They shouldn’t have been put to trial in the first place.”

Former AP Correspondent Daw Aye Aye Win / The Irrawaddy

Daw Aye Aye Win, former AP correspondent

“This has confirmed that there is no press freedom in Myanmar. This Reuters case is proof of it.

“And the handing down of a long sentence will have a very negative impact upon the dignity of the government. It seems that the government does not consider [press freedom] as builder of democracy. This is the complete reverse of democratization. It is very disappointing.

“When reporters are punished for doing their job, it serves as a warning to all journalists. This will forcibly divide journalists into two groups. One will exercise extra caution [about what they write], and the other will continue writing despite the harmful consequences. [The sentencing of the two reporters] seriously threatens press freedom. Journalists will exercise more caution. As they practice self-censorship out of fear of possible retribution, this will significantly impact their reporting. I’m disappointed that the government led by [State Counselor] Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is stepping into a dark era.”

U Aung Hla Tun, deputy information minister

“I feel a little sorry for them, as I once worked as a journalist. But there is still hope for them. This is not the end. They still have a chance according to the law. They can appeal to the higher courts. I pray for them. That’s all I can say.

“There are laws that restrict press freedom. I recognize this fact. Those laws have been in force for years, but they are being reviewed now. On the other hand, journalists have to follow ethics. This is very important. And they must also have professional skills.

“Overall, [the press] should have patience. [Reform of these outdated laws] will not take place immediately. [Journalists] should also regulate themselves. Self-regulation is essential. I don’t mean self-censorship. Self-censorship comes from fear [of possible retribution]. Self-regulation comes from self-awareness and morality.

“[Journalists] should know what they can and cannot do, aside from any possible legal repercussions. They should know the law. There is nothing to be afraid of. They [journalists] have to do their job. But they must be professional and ethical.”

Stephen J. Adler, Reuters president and editor-in-chief

“Today is a sad day for Myanmar, Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, and the press everywhere. These two admirable reporters 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. This is a major step backward in Myanmar’s transition to democracy, cannot be squared with the rule of law or freedom of speech, and must be corrected by the Myanmar government as a matter of urgency. We will not wait while Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo suffer this injustice and will evaluate how to proceed in the coming days, including whether to seek relief in an international forum.” (from a statement)

Ko Than Zaw Aung, defense lawyer

“It is very disappointing. This shows the critical situation facing democracy, freedom of expression and the rule of law in Myanmar, which is said to be undergoing democratization. We’ll do whatever we can [to secure] the release of the two reporters.”

U Sein Win, Myanmar Journalism Institute training director

“A guilty verdict without strong evidence is quite disappointing. The prosecution witness testified that the case was a set-up. It couldn’t be any clearer.

“But the sentencing of the two shows that our judicial system is severely paralyzed. The message of the verdict is that, ‘You should not seek the truth. Press freedom is not important. And you can be safe only by currying favor with those in power. Anything done by those in power is right.’

“You can’t ignore the truth in building a country. If a murder is treated as a state secret in a country, you may realize what type of people the leaders of that country are. Aren’t we going to do anything to correct the way the country is being built?”

Myanmar Press Council member-elect Ko Thalun Zaung Htet at a march on Saturday in Yangon in which people showed solidarity for jailed Reuters journalists Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo. / MPA

Ko Thalun Zaung Htet, Myanmar Press Council member-elect

“This indicates that democracy is doomed and there is no press freedom in Myanmar, and that the NLD [National League for Democracy] has become authoritarian. Soon, we journalists will take to the streets.”

Foreign Correspondents Club of Myanmar

“The Foreign Correspondents Club of Myanmar is gravely dismayed and condemns in the strongest possible terms the sentencing of two award-winning Reuters journalists to a staggering seven years in prison.”

“The conviction and harsh sentence strike a blow to the journalistic profession and pose a grave threat to press freedom in Myanmar.

“We, the FCCM, would like to reiterate our call for the immediate release of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo and also call for an impartial review of the case on appeal.

“We further urge the government to ensure that journalists are allowed to carry out their profession without fear of harassment and intimidation.” (from a statement)

Assistance Association for Political Prisoners

“The case raises real concerns regarding the impartiality of the judicial system in Burma. Both parliaments must review the Official Secrets Act, and make sure that the law should not be applied to journalists. The application of such law to journalists should be condemned and action taken to ensure what happened with Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo cannot happen again.
Journalism is not a crime. This case is another worrying back step for freedom of expression and press freedoms in Burma. There is a need for fair and free reporting, [but] such reporting has become incredibly dangerous in the shrinking space available for freedom of expression within Burma. The government must protect such … investigative journalism and ensure journalists do not get arrested for doing their jobs.
“Burma needs a free and fair media. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo need to be released and returned to their families. Today is a dark day for freedom of expression in Burma.” (from a statement)

U Ye Naing Moe, founding director of Yangon Journalism School (Photo: Yangon Journalism School/ Facebook)

U Ye Naing Moe, founding director of Yangon Journalism School

“The sentencing of the two Reuters reporters shows that this society is going in the wrong direction. To imprison two journalists is the very opposite of building democracy. Democracy needs an ecosystem to thrive in, and journalists are a necessary part of that ecosystem.

“There must be a free and independent judicial system in society for journalists to be able to do their job. Without judicial independence, how can journalists have the courage to risk their lives to make investigative reports? The imprisonment of the two reporters has called judicial independence into question.

“Every journalist who hears about this morning’s sentence of seven years’ imprisonment will now be placed under considerable pressure [making it difficult] to conduct investigative journalism to serve the people with good intentions. Without judicial independence that guarantees the freedom of journalists, it is very hard to conduct investigative journalism. This creates a chilling effect and spreads fear. Frankly, it is a threat to journalists to step back.”

Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch

“The outrageous convictions of the Reuters journalists show Myanmar courts’ willingness to muzzle those reporting on military atrocities. These sentences mark a new low for press freedom and further backsliding on rights under [State Counselor Daw] Aung San Suu Kyi’s government.

“Myanmar’s leadership should immediately quash the verdicts and release Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.” (from a statement)

Federica Mogherini, spokesperson of the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy  

“Today’s court decision to sentence Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo to seven years of imprisonment undermines the freedom of the media, the public’s right to information and the development of the rule of law in Myanmar.

“Their sentencing and imprisonment under the Official Secrets Act of 1923 for covering allegations of serious human rights violations in Rakhine State also serve to intimidate other journalists who will fear harassment and undue arrest or prosecution for merely doing their jobs.

“We therefore reiterate our expectation that the authorities ensure adequate conditions for journalists to carry out their work. The prison sentences of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo should be reviewed and the two journalists be released immediately and unconditionally.” (from a statement)