Reporters in Handcuffs: An Emblem for Our Times

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 16 February 2018

It’s a pathetic sight: a journalist being led away in handcuffs for doing his or her job. It’s also a source of shame for a democracy to have journalists going to jail for gathering information. That’s the reality Myanmar is facing today with two local reporters—Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo—having spent more than two months behind bars and facing trial for alleged possession of security-related confidential documents.

According to Reuters, for whom they work, the two reporters had been working on an investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslims who were buried in a mass grave in northern Rakhine.

Myanmar’s UN Ambassador Hau Do Suan said the journalists were not arrested for reporting a story, but for their alleged illegal possession of confidential government documents.

At their first hearing, the detained journalists told relatives and colleagues that they had acted in accordance with journalistic ethics, regardless of the accusations against them. “We haven’t committed any crime,” Kyaw Soe Oo said.

We firmly believe they are innocent. If they are guilty of anything, it is of doing their jobs as journalists — gathering information to inform people about what is really happening in conflict-torn northern Rakhine State.

For doing their jobs, they have been charged under the Official Secrets Act, with the official approval of the President’s Office, of offenses that could earn them 14 years’ imprisonment.

The approval of the charge was signed by Vice President U Myint Swe, as President Htin Kyaw was on a trip to Japan on the night of the pair’s arrest on Dec. 12.

Coincidentally, the person who signed the approval for their prosecution for possession of army- and police-related documents under the Officials Secrets Act is himself a former lieutenant-general.

Following the process mandated under the Constitution, the 67-year-old was appointed vice president by military lawmakers in 2016. Before that he was the chief minister of Yangon. As a military man, U Myint Swe was reportedly involved in the 2002 arrest of family members of the former dictator Ne Win, the arrest of Khin Nyunt and his associates in 2004, and the crushing of the Saffron Revolution in Yangon in 2007.

An ethnic Mon, he graduated from the 15th intake of the Defense Services Academy (DSA) in 1971 and rose steadily through the ranks to become the commanding officer of Light Infantry Division No. 11, overseeing security in the former capital. He was later transferred to the War Office, where he worked directly under Senior-General Than Shwe and his deputy, Gen. Maung Aye. He reportedly has close relations with the former dictator Than Shwe’s family.

It will also be interesting to see how the country’s judiciary handles the case, given the contradictory testimony from police involved in the case.

At the latest hearing on Wednesday, a second police lieutenant who was part of the team that arrested the reporters gave a location for the arrest that was contrary to a map of the arrest site previously produced by police and entered in the court file.

And at an earlier hearing last week, a police officer who was part of the arrest team told the court that he had burned the notes he made at the time. He did not say why.

So far, media freedom in Myanmar has been tarnished under the Daw Aung San Suu Kyi-led democratic government. Last year, reporters from The Irrawaddy and Democratic Voice of Burma were arrested and charged by the military with unlawful association while reporting in northern Shan State. Now comes the Reuters journalists’ case. Their plight highlights the heavy restrictions on media access to the conflict zone in Rakhine State. It’s no wonder their case has attracted international attention and prompted calls for freedom of information in the country.

The government’s loud pronouncements that “Myanmar recognizes freedom of the press” cannot obscure the fact that with the arrest of these journalists, the canary in Myanmar’s democracy coal mine has died, and it is obvious for all to see.