Myanmar’s media community was hit by a powerful blow this morning. Its professionals feel sad, disappointed and under siege. Today’s events have also damaged the image of the country and the integrity of the government.
On Monday morning, two Reuters reporters, Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo, were sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for violating the Official Secrets Act. The two reporters found themselves under arrest on Dec. 12 after gathering information on the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslims in Inn Din village in Rakhine State’s Maungdaw Township during a clearance operation by security forces last year.
Many people have believed since the start that the case filed by police officials was a set-up, as suggested by U Win Htein, a leading member of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), right after the arrest of the two reporters. Other NLD members and lawmakers agreed, believing that the journalists were just doing their jobs.
At a hearing in April, even a prosecution witness, Police Captain Moe Yan Naing, told the court that the two journalists were targeted in a police plan to entrap them by offering them “secret documents”. The officer alleged that Pol. Brigadier-General Tin Ko Ko threatened police officials who failed to take steps to entrap the two reporters.
He told the court that Pol. Brig-Gen. Tin Ko Ko’s actions were “unethical and damaged the integrity of the country on the international stage.” However, the allegation was never investigated.
We know the case was handled by the police department, which is under the authority of the Home Affairs Ministry — one of three ministries controlled by the commander-in-chief of the military. We know that Myanmar’s legal code remains clogged with many oppressive and outdated laws, like the Official Secrets Act, which dates back to the British colonial era, that are in need of repeal or amendment. We also know that the independence of the country’s judicial system is very much in question — a legacy of previous authoritarian regimes. And we know that the attorney general is an ex-military official.
Together with media professionals, diplomats and various democratic institutions, however, we believe that the NLD-led government, which was elected by a majority of the people, should have done something to stand on the side of truth and justice. The government leaders, especially President U Win Myint and State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, should understand how badly this arbitrary prosecution under their government could damage the country’s image and democratic principles.
As a result, the international community, democratic institutions and media organizations have even less confidence than before in the government and its de facto leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Embassies including those of the U.S., the Netherlands, the U.K. and others have condemned the court’s decision and urged the government to immediately release the two reporters.
President U Win Myint, since he took office in March, has underscored the role of the media in the country’s democratic transition. In his inaugural speech on March 30, he said, “I wish to urge the media sector, which serves as the ears and eyes of the public, to understand the seriousness of their duties and to hold in high regard the public sector that they serve.” But in this important case, which is pivotal for democracy, the president was nowhere to be seen.
Even if they received ambiguous information from their subordinates, there is no reason for the government’s senior leaders, especially President U Win Myint and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, to be confused about this case.
There is nothing wrong in what these particular Reuters reporters did; like any journalists they were simply doing their jobs by attempting to gather information so as to uncover the truth for the public.
I remember reading Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s comments in the book The Voice of Hope, a compilation of interviews with her after her release from her first house arrest in 1995: “Truth is a powerful weapon. And truth—like anything that is powerful—can be frightening or reassuring, depending on which side you are on.” She added, “If you’re on the side of truth, it’s very reassuring—you have its protection.”
Sadly, however, those who are now on the side of the truth don’t have its protection under her government. This is deeply discouraging, and the blow against the reporters this morning also indicates that the few democratic gains our country has made are being rolled back.
We cannot sit idly by and allow this disgraceful return to the past. We journalists are determined to continue carrying out our mission. Meanwhile, the government must do its part.