The sentencing of two Reuters journalists to seven years in prison in Myanmar for violating a state secrets act while investigating violence against the Rohingya minority on Monday was seen as a crushing blow to freedom of expression.
Wa Lone 32, and Kyaw SoeOo,28 nationals of Myanmar, were arrested while carrying official documents which had just been given to them by police officers but were eventually found guilty for violating the Official Secrecy Act.
Judge Ye Lwin told the court in Yangon the pair had "intended to harm the interests of the state"."And so they have been found guilty under the state secrets act," he added.
Hours after the sentencing of the two journalist, the international community including Media rights organizations, diplomats and international organisations stepped up their call for the release of the two journalists.
The two media persons themselves remained defiant. "I have no fear," Wa Lone, one of the two journalists, said after the verdict. "I have not done anything wrong. I believe in justice, democracy and freedom."
The two men, who both have families with young children, have been in prison since their arrest in December 2017.
The two journalists were working on an investigation into the mass killing of a number of Rohingya villagers in Myanmar's Rakhine state.
The violence was part of a conflict which the UN has described as a form of "ethnic cleansing,"with military operations forcing more than 700,000 Rohingya, a minority Muslim group, to flee Myanmar to Bangladesh.The two journalists were charged with breaching the colonial-era act, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison, in July.The reporters were bustled from the court where a small crowd of supporters momentarily blocked policemen from pushing them into a vehicle to take them back to jail."Today is a sad day for Myanmar, Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw SoeOo, and press freedom anywhere," Reuters editor-in-chief Stephen Adler said.He said they had been collecting evidence about the execution of 10 men by the army in the village of Inn Din in northern Rakhine.
During their investigation, they were offered documents by two police officers, but were arrested immediately afterwards for the possession of those documents.
The BBC reported that many will see this verdict as a crushing blow to freedom of the press in Myanmar and another setback for democracy, three years after Aung San Suu Kyi's party triumphed in free elections.Last week, UN inspectors called for Myanmar's top generals to stand trial for genocide for the crimes committed against the Rohingya - the very subject these reporters were investigating.
The verdict has been widely criticised by observers and human rights groups.
"We are extremely disappointed by this verdict," Britain's ambassador to Myanmar, Dan Chugg said according to Reuters. whose deaths the Reuters journalists were investigatingUS ambassador Scot Marciel echoed the same criticism, saying the court's decision was "deeply troubling for everybody who has struggled so hard here for media freedom".The UN's resident and humanitarian co-ordinator in Myanmar Knut Ostby said the UN had "consistently called for the release" of the journalists and that "a free press is essential for peace, justice and human rights for all. We are disappointed by today's court decision".The EU’s foreign policy service said the sentence “undermines the freedom of the media, the public’s right to information and the development of the rule of law in Myanmar”.
“The prison sentences of Wa Lone and Kyaw SoeOo should be reviewed and the two journalists be released immediately and unconditionally,” it said in a statement.“Today is a sad day for Myanmar, Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw SoeOo, and the press everywhere,” Adler said in a statement.“These two admirable reporters have already spent nearly nine months in prison on false charges designed to silence their reporting and intimidate the press.“Without any evidence of wrongdoing and in the face of compelling evidence of a police set-up, today’s ruling condemns them to the continued loss of their freedom and condones the misconduct of security forces.
“This is a major step backward in Myanmar’s transition to democracy, cannot be squared with the rule of law or freedom of speech, and must be corrected by the Myanmar government as a matter of urgency.
The Monday’s verdict was not uncommon in the Asian regions showing all signs that unity among journalists and rights groups were essential to campaign against such rulings.
A 2009 Sri Lankan journalist was sentenced to 20 years in prison yesterday under anti terror laws.
The Sri Lankan Government accused MrTissainayagam of taking money to spread Tiger propaganda in a case that the US Department of State said last year “appeared to be politically motivated”.
Tissainayagamwas thought to be the first journalist convicted under the PTA in Sri Lanka since it was passed 30 years ago. He will appeal against his conviction, his lawyer said.
In 2009 May the Sri Lanka Government achieved victory in a brutal 26-year civil war against the Tigers that had claimed up to 100,000 lives.
However, Tissanayagam received a presidential pardon in May 2010.
INTERNATIONAL CENTER FOR THE PROTECTION AND FREEDOM OF JOURNALISTS