Amnesty Sends Positive Signals for Press Freedom, Reconciliation

By The Irrawaddy 8 May 2019

The release of the two jailed Reuters reporters is welcome news. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and Western governments are among those who have applauded the announcement.

The presidential pardons for Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo, who were convicted of violating the Official Secrets Act and spent more than 500 days in prison, triggered a wave of rare optimism in Myanmar’s still depressingly repressive society.

Amid a generally bleak outlook and a series of joy-killing headlines of late, the news offers a glimmer of hope.

We would like to believe that it is not a false hope; that, as many have touted, the sight of the reporters and several activists being freed yesterday is a small step on the long journey to press freedom. We can’t give up.

Ethnically diverse Myanmar is going through a deeply complex political transition with an elected civilian government now in power. We must acknowledge that the release of the two reporters and a number of members of ethnic armed organizations, along with several civilians accused of being affiliated with them, is a meaningful gesture. The international press has understandably focused on the release of the two Reuters reporters, but the EAO members’ release sends an important signal for national reconciliation.

So far, about 6,520 prisoners have been released in the third round of this year’s presidential pardons, for which President U Win Myint—himself a former political prisoner—deserves full credit.

The journalists’ release was preceded by much back-and-forth negotiation and difficult dialogue between the ministries, the military and the President’s Office as demands to free the two reporters increased both inside and outside the country.

On Dec. 17, 2017, Army-appointed Vice President U Myint Swe, acting on behalf of Myanmar’s civilian then-President U Htin Kyaw, signed a document authorizing the arrest of the two Reuters reporters. The government announced that the pair faced charges under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act for obtaining important secret papers. From that moment, the government came under steadily increasing pressure to release them.

In Singapore last year, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence pressed State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi “multiple times” to pardon the two journalists, Reuters quoted White House officials as saying at the time.

Upon the release of the two reporters, Lord Darzi, a member of the International Advisory Board on Rakhine State, said, “This outcome shows that dialogue works, even in the most difficult of circumstances. I would like to pay tribute to all of those that came together to achieve this—the government of Myanmar, the world-renowned Reuters news agency, the UN and various governments and international organizations.”

He added, “The power of dialogue must be turned towards securing a lasting peace in Rakhine State and the return of the hundreds of thousands of refugees, whose desperate plight continues. This is essential if Myanmar is to build on today’s progress so that all its citizens can live together in dignity in the hope of a better tomorrow.”

He used a BBC interview to emphasize, “There have been many international institutions and governments involved in the dialogue—and dialogue is the only way to achieve what we’ve achieved today.”

The happy outcome was the result of several backdoor meetings and negotiations.

It had appeared unlikely that the two reporters, who received seven-year prison sentences, would be freed anytime soon.

At the World Economic Forum in Hanoi, Vietnam last year, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi stood firm on the verdict, thwarting the hopes of some that she would lead calls for the pair to be pardoned. “They were jailed because a sentence has been passed on them, because the court has decided they have broken the Official Secrets Act.”

Ko Wa Lone talks to the media on Sept. 3, 2018 after he and his colleague Kyaw Soe Oo were found guilty of breaching the Official Secrets Act. / Htet Wai / The Irrawaddy

She also said, “I wonder whether very many people have actually read the summary of the judgment, which had nothing to do with freedom of expression at all; it had to do with an Official Secrets Act.” She added that the “rule of law” means that “they have every right to appeal the judgment and to point out why the judgment was wrong.”

However, many dialogues and meetings took place among high-ranking officials and international players. Government leaders didn’t want to be seen intervening in court proceedings or the judicial process.

Some movement apparently occurred last year after news emerged that a court had rejected the reporters’ appeal of the lower court’s ruling.

It had been rumored that the pair would be released as part of an amnesty to mark this year’s Independence Day on Jan. 4, but it didn’t happen. After they lost their appeal to the Supreme Court in Naypyitaw, it was quietly suggested to the two reporters and their family members that they not lodge any further appeal to the Chief Justice.

The President and State Counselor received letters from the reporters’ families at a meeting between media practitioners, government officials, legislators and members of the judiciary in Naypyitaw on April 30.

The Independence Day amnesty came and went with no release for the pair. But another chance arrived with Myanmar’s traditional New Year in April, during which the president customarily pardons a large number of prisoners.

Sources said that President U Win Myint was determined to free the reporters, but did not wish to interfere in the court proceedings. The president, a former barrister, promised to bring about democracy and the respect for human rights that our people long for, and to reform the country’s weak judicial system and establish respect for the media. As a former political prisoner he was known to be sympathetic to the media and the role it played in the pro-democracy movement.

Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo were included in the presidential amnesty announced on May 7. According to a statement announcing the amnesty, the prisoners were released “without condition” as part of the Myanmar New Year and to help smooth the peace-building process and national reconciliation. No such gesture was offered during amnesties by previous governments or regimes.

Between April 18 and May 7, President U Win Myint pardoned 23,019 prisoners, many of them convicted of violating drug laws, in particular drug convicts who were especially young or old. The two reporters were among them.

This moment of optimism is important; we must seize on it and build the momentum needed to further advance the processes of political reform and national reconciliation in Myanmar.

The country’s media sector has a proud tradition; many talented, trained and courageous editors, journalists and reporters have sacrificed their lives to tell the country’s stories to the world. Because of them, the world learned and discovered many untold stories of Myanmar, and this must continue.

But journalists continue to face reprisals, including long and unfair jail sentences, merely for doing their jobs in what is already a difficult and challenging environment.

Despite the glimmer of hope offered by the Reuters reporters’ release, journalists still face threats and intimidation these days amid an increasing climate of fear in the country.

In the run-up to World Press Freedom Day on May 3, the military filed a number of charges against journalists and news media organizations. A senior military officer said the military chose to pursue criminal charges because they carry stiffer penalties than would be available through Press Council mediation.

The media freedom, democracy and human rights situations in the country remain dire. Several journalists have been hit with lawsuits recently; one of them is an editor at this publication.

The military has sued The Irrawaddy News under Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law for its coverage of recent clashes between the Myanmar Army and the Arakan Army ethnic armed group in the ancient town of Mrauk-U in Rakhine State.

Additionally, several members of the Peacock Generation Thangyat ensemble were arrested for participating in a performance that criticized the Myanmar military, the group said.

As a sign of its commitment to the transition to democracy, Myanmar must improve the freedom of its press. Press freedom is key to further democratization in the country. In working, functioning democracies, journalists must be able to carry out their mission without fear of retaliation.

The government must act to ensure the safety of journalists, while helping to create enabling conditions for a free and responsible media, including regulatory and legal reform. So far, however, we have seen discouragingly little along these lines from the government.

Putting journalists behind bars for doing their job is a disgrace. With the release of the two reporters, we hope the practice is at an end.