Embassies and Rights Groups Denounce Reuters Convictions

By The Irrawaddy 3 September 2018

YANGON — International embassies and rights groups denounced the convictions of two Reuters journalists as “devastating” and “deeply troubling” while calling the government to immediately release the journalists and review the case.

Yangon’s Northern District Court on Monday sentenced Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo to seven years in prison for breaching the Official Secrets Act.

In a statement released on the same day, the US Embassy said “the conviction of journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo under the Official Secrets Act is deeply troubling for all who support press freedom and the transition toward democracy in Myanmar.”

The two reporters were arrested in December last year for possessing important and secret government documents relating to Rakhine State and security forces. At the time of the arrest, the pair was investigating the killing of Rohingya villagers. Despite the government’s accusation of violating the Official Secrets Act, a prosecution witness, Capt. Moe Yan Naing told the court that a police brigadier-general ordered officers to “trap” the Reuters reporters arrested in December, instructing them to meet the journalists at a restaurant and give them “secret documents.”

The US embassy said the clear flaws in the case raise serious concerns about rule of law and judicial independence in Myanmar, and the reporters’ conviction is a major setback to the government of Myanmar’s stated goal of expanding democratic freedoms.

“We urge the Government of Myanmar to release Wa Lone and Kyaw So Oo immediately, and to end the arbitrary prosecution of journalists doing their jobs,” said the statement.

Dan Chugg, the British Ambassador to Myanmar, said on behalf of the British Government and EU member states that they were extremely disappointed with the verdict and sentencing and called the journalists’ immediate releases.

“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.”

The European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy said the conviction “undermines the freedom of the media, the public’s right to information and the development of the rule of law in Myanmar.”

The representative Federica Mogherini said in a statement that the European Union and EU Member State diplomats were among the many international observers present at every court hearing since the journalists’ arrest on Dec. 12, 2017, and they have continuously raised the matter with the Myanmar government.

“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,” said the statement.

The Embassy of Denmark said the sentencing day was a “dark day for press freedom and rule of law in Myanmar” and called 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.”

“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,” said the statement.

Meanwhile, rights groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International called the convictions “politically motivated” and HRW urged the government to immediately quash the verdict and release Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.

Amnesty International said the politically-motivated decision has significant ramifications for press freedom in Myanmar.

“It sends a stark warning to other journalists in the country of the severe consequences that await should they look too closely at military abuses. This amounts to censorship through fear.”