UPDATES WITH REACTION FROM UN
By Kyaw Ye Lynn
YANGON, Myanmar (AA) – A Myanmar court on Monday sentenced two Reuters news agency journalists to seven years in jail for an investigation into the murder of Rohingya Muslim men by security officials.
Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, are charged with breaching the Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison during the investigation into the murder of 10 Rohingya men in Rakhine state.
Judge Ye Lwin of Yangon’s Northern District Court said each journalist was handed a seven-year term as they were found guilty of obtaining and possessing classified documents which they possibly transferred to insurgent groups that are fighting against the government.
Wa Lone said the ruling is unfair.
“We did nothing wrong, and we have no fear. We still believe in democracy and freedom of speech.”
“We will fight for justice until the end,” he said.
Defense lawyer Than Zaw Aung also said the ruling is unfair.
“We will do everything legally,” he added.
Following their conviction, the U.S. embassy called on Myanmar to release the journalists immediately, saying it is “a major setback” to the government of Myanmar's stated goal of expanding democratic freedoms.
"The clear flaws in this case raise serious concerns about the rule of law and judicial independence in Myanmar," it said in a statement.
France also slammed the sentencing and reiterated its call for the release of the two imprisoned journalists as well as allowing free access of the media in Rakhine.
"France reaffirms its constant commitment to freedom of the press and freedom of expression, and respect for these freedoms is a cornerstone of any democratic society," the French Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Germany sharply criticized the court’s decision, with the government’s Human Rights Commissioner Baerbel Kofler saying it was a “serious blow” to press freedom in Myanmar.
“The two journalists were found guilty of treason based on a law from the colonial era. They have done nothing other than supporting the pursuit of truth in Rakhine [state],” she said in a statement.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is concerned over the conviction and sentencing in Myanmar of the two journalists, said his spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, in a statement.
“He urges the authorities to review their decision,” Dujarric added.
“It is unacceptable that these journalists were prosecuted for reporting on major human rights violations against the Rohingya in Rakhine State.
“The Secretary-General will continue to advocate for the release of the journalists. He calls for full respect of freedom of the press and all human rights in Myanmar,” he added.
The ruling also drew criticism from local and international rights groups.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said it marks “a new low for press freedom and further backsliding on rights” under the government led by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, who was accused of failing to stop the military atrocities against Rohingya Muslims.
"The outrageous convictions of the Reuters journalists show Myanmar courts’ willingness to muzzle those reporting on military atrocities,” said HRW’s Asia director Brad Adams.
After their arrest, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were held incommunicado for two weeks, during which they were deprived of sleep and forced to kneel for hours during interrogation, according to the reporters and their lawyers.
“These convictions won’t hide the horrors against the Rohingya from the world,” said Adams.
“They merely reveal the precarious state of free speech in the country and the urgent need for international action to free these journalists.”
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) also condemned the ruling and reiterated its call for the immediate release of the reporters.
“The conviction of Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone is a terrible blow to press freedom in Myanmar,” RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire said in a statement.
“As the justice system clearly followed orders, in this case, we call on the country’s most senior officials, starting with government leader Aung San Suu Kyi, to free these journalists, whose only crime was to do their job. After a farcical prosecution, this outrageous verdict clearly calls into question Myanmar’s transition to democracy,” he added.
The London-based Burma Human Rights Network (BHRN) also condemned the conviction of the two Reuters journalists, saying it signaled "another failure by the National League for Democracy administration to protect human rights and press freedom in Burma…and stands in stark contrast to the impunity enjoyed by the military for the crimes that these reporters exposed”.