Good News, but Not the News We Need

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 10 May 2019

The release of two reporters—Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo—delighted journalists in Myanmar and around the world. And while it was certainly good news for the reporters personally, I don’t see it as great news for the country’s media.

One reason is that the pair were released thanks to the intervention of the civilian government, but they should never have been arrested, as they were entrapped by the police. Their release offers no assurances that journalists will not face similar set-ups, arrests and charges in the future at the hands of security forces. Their release was a rescue by the government, making what use it can of its limited presidential power.

When I heard the news on the way to The Irrawaddy office on Tuesday morning, I was overjoyed—but not surprised. Since the two Reuters journalists were sentenced in September 2018, I had been expecting that they would be released sometime around the Myanmar New Year’s Day in mid-April.

On many occasions since then—at meetings with diplomats, and my foreign and local friends—I was asked if and when they would be freed, after they were sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for their reporting on the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslims by the Army in Rakhine State in 2017.

My consistent answer was: “They are likely to be freed in January or April [2019].” Specifically, I said, their release could come on or around Jan. 4—Myanmar’s Independence Day—or in mid-April for the traditional New Year, when the Thingyan water festival is held. During those times, the government tends to release prisoners to mark auspicious moments for the country.

Finally, my calculation proved accurate on Tuesday.

On April 17, Myanmar’s traditional New Year’s day, President U Win Myint, a vice chairman of the National League for Democracy (NLD), started granting a series of presidential pardons to prisoners to mark the New Year holiday. More than 9,500 prisoners were released on April 17 and almost 7,000 prisoners released on April 26 in pardon announcements. In the last batch of New Year releases, the President granted pardons to 6,520 prisoners on Tuesday. Among them were the journalists Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo, together with dozens of rights activists and members of ethnic armed groups that have fought for autonomy.

Why were they released within eight months of being sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment last September?

Here, some details and background facts are important to make the right calculation. The police, who are connected to the military, entrapped Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo in order to arrest the pair after they investigated the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslims by security forces in 2017. (Police officer Moe Yan Naing confessed to being ordered to set the journalists up for arrest.) In order to charge the journalists under the British colonial-era Official Secrets Act of 1923, the Home Affairs Ministry, which oversees the police, got approval for the charge from the President. But in the absence of then President U Htin Kyaw, who was in Japan at the time, Vice President U Myint Swe, who was selected as a vice president by the military representatives in Parliament for the military’s constitutional quota, authorized the arrests. In late 2018, the two journalists were sentenced to seven years in prison by the courts, which are not independent and have traditionally been influenced by military officials since the decades-long rule of the previous military regimes.

It is also true that the government, under de facto leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, wasn’t involved in the killings. And they didn’t see the charges against the two reporters coming. But the government can’t overrule any actions, decisions or lawsuits initiated by the military, simply because of the country’s current political structure—devised by the former military regime—which is dominated by the military, its former officials in the government and its own Constitution, which favors the institution.

So my calculation—given the layers that make up the political spectrum in our country—was that the government was waiting for the right moment to free the two.

On the face of it, the government runs the country. In reality, it just wields a degree of executive power over a complex political backdrop in which the military is involved in every sector: in making laws in Parliament, in filling ministerial positions and making government appointments. That’s why the government had to wait until the end of the legal process of the Reuters case and for a traditional moment when the President could grant his pardon according to the Constitution. It was the one great opportunity for the government to step in and release them, together with other prisoners.

I actually think that the primary purpose of this year’s pardons was to free the two Reuters reporters. It’s the method this government has used to free political prisoners since 2016.

Up until the day of their release, the story seemed so different. The international community continually urged the Myanmar government to release the pair, in the face of what appeared to be a government refusal to do so. As a result, the “news” story that developed was one of unwillingness by the government and its leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to act. This is the story that swirled among diplomatic circles, activist groups and civic organizations.

This “news” even included talk that Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who as the commander-in-chief of the military is the real boss of the Home Affairs Ministry, had given the green light to release the two journalists, but that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was personally opposed to the move. Such “news” flowed freely at receptions and other gatherings of diplomats, critics, rights activists, and journalists. Well…it’s hard to confirm such “news”, much of which is— knowingly or unknowingly—fabricated. Personally, I struggled to make much sense of such “news”.

All of this notwithstanding, it’s wrong to see the release of these journalists as a significant step for press freedom or journalism. It’s simply not the case. As I explained above, this particular case is not about press freedom as much as it is about the country’s political context, and the military’s desire to take action against these two journalists. I don’t see it as “face saving”, either, though the release has brought international praise and is intended in part to restore the government’s image in the eyes of the international community. In the future, when the military or other powerful institutions file charges against journalists, the government is likely to apply its current method of not interfering much in the legal process.

An exception to this might be in cases where the central government believes its own appointed officials, such as ministers or chief ministers, have acted inappropriately. We saw an example of this when Yangon Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein charged three local journalists and arrested them; the president officially urged—in the form of a letter—the chief minister, who is a member of the NLD, to follow the procedure laid down in the Press Law, which requires him to complain to the Myanmar Press Council and seek its mediation.

Furthermore, the government’s ultimate political aim is still to establish full civilian rule through a gradual reduction in the role of the military in politics. It might take another generation to remove the men in uniform, given the resistance on the part of the military and its parliamentary allies to the efforts by the NLD and the ethnic parties to amend the Constitution.

As long as the charter remains as it is, the unfortunate truth is that we are likely to see more cases like that of the Reuters reporters. Last month, the military opened a lawsuit against one of our Irrawaddy editors. We sent official letters to the President’s Office and the Ministry of Information, but I don’t see the government intervening in cases where the military is the prosecutor.

That’s why I said the release of the two journalists is good news but not great news. Relying on presidential pardons to free journalists who are arrested and imprisoned just for doing their jobs is not a healthy state of affairs. What we journalists need is proper protections under which no one can sue or charge us for doing our jobs.

Kyaw Zwa Moe is the editor of the English edition of The Irrawaddy.

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