The Yangon Northern District Court’s decision on Monday to charge two Reuters reporters for breaching the Official Secrets Act for allegedly obtaining secret government documents is a clear sign that press freedom in Myanmar is dangerously on the wane.
The reporters were charged with violating Section 3  [c] of the colonial-era law, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.
They denied the allegations and told the court that they were simply doing their jobs as reporters. They said they neither collected nor copied the documents as accused.
In other words, they were charged because they did what journalists are supposed to do: investigate issues that people should know about.
If that is the case, every reporter in Myanmar who takes independent journalism seriously is now vulnerable. If you are digging into something relating to someone in power or involving the military, as Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo were, you are at risk of a prison term. The charge against the two Reuters reporters is a bad omen for other journalists who are dedicating their lives and time to exposing things that some people don’t want revealed.
Besides the Reuters case, Myanmar saw at least six local journalists detained last year under a government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, including one of The Irrawaddy’s own. They were sued for venturing into restive ethnic minority areas to report on drug eradication, writing and publishing a satirical article about a local government, and defaming an ultra-nationalist monk (five of them have had their cases dropped; only Myanmar Now editor Ko Swe Sin is still on trial in a case brought by the monk’s supporters).
We journalists condemn this trend, as we see it, as an attempt to muzzle us.
Amnesty International said charging the Reuters reporters under the draconian law was a sign that authorities were intent on silencing critical voices.
“It also serves notice to other journalists working in the country that speaking out comes with serious consequences,” said Tirana Hassan, the rights group’s director of crisis response.
From a legal point of view, the prosecution has failed to provide credible evidence of any wrongdoing over six months of hearings. A 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 into evidence. Another 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. More importantly, a police whistleblower who said the arrest was a setup was swiftly convicted and sentenced to a year in prison for having a meeting with the reporters. In short, it was disappointing, as defense lawyer U Than Zaw Aung put it, to see them charged with no solid evidence.
It’s no wonder the International Commission of Jurists, following Monday’s decision, said the case “significantly undermines the government’s stated commitments to reforming and building public confidence in [the] judicial process.”
For the country as a whole, it’s a shame to see the reporters behind bars for their investigation, especially with a democratically elected government in power. For Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo, the truth will eventually prevail. But for the moment it is painful for all of us, and for their families, to see the reporters in handcuffs — an image that says Myanmar’s democratic government is allergic to the norms of press freedom.