After six months of preliminary hearings, a court in Myanmar has charged Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, the two jailed Reuters reporters, with obtaining secret state documents.
Yangon district judge Ye Lwin, in Yangon’s Insein Township, charged the reporters with violating the colonial-era Official Secret Act, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison. They pleaded “not guilty” to the charges. Their first hearing is set for July 16.
The landmark press freedom case will now enter the trial phase. According to legal experts, defense lawyers will summon witnesses before the judge, who will reach a verdict after the witnesses have been called to the stand.
“The court’s decision to charge these two journalists is a hammer blow to freedom of the media in Myanmar and shows just how fragile the country’s democratic reforms are,” said Phil Robertson, the Deputy Asia Director for Human Rights Watch. “Today’s action is a clear indication of the significant backsliding on human rights we’ve seen in Myanmar since the 2015 election.”
At the time of their arrest in Dec. 2017, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were working on an investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya men and boys in Inn Din Village, Rakhine State. The Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, admitted in January that its soldiers were responsible for the killings but says the conviction was the result of its own internal investigation.
The killings occurred during the military crackdown last year that drove 700,000 Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh.
Robertson said: “Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were simply doing their jobs as investigative journalists and never should have been charged in the first place. The Official Secrets Act is a legal outrage from a bygone colonial era that should have been abolished by Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD government in the early days after they assumed power, not maintained and used to intimidate journalists.”
According to relatives of the two journalists, they were arrested on Dec. 12 shortly after being handed rolled up documents during a meeting with police over dinner.
In April, Police Captain Moe Yan Naing testified in court that Police Brigadier General Tin Ko Ko ordered his subordinates to “trap” Wa Lone by planting secret documents on the reporter. The judge denied the prosecution’s request to declare the police officer an unreliable witness, and the testimony was upheld.
During cross-examinations, the two reporters described being subjected to interrogations that have been described by their lawyers as “torture,” including being questioned every two hours for three days. A senior police officer denied that the reporters were subjected to sleep deprivation.
“Diplomats and UN officials need to further step up to pressure Myanmar to reverse course and recognize that a media freedom and independent news reporting is important to the international community and their decisions on whether to engage with and invest in Myanmar,” Robertson said.