Fri, Sep 07, 2018 - Page 9 News List

How two reporters were punished for uncovering an atrocity

In a Burmese court, the defense’s ability to punch holes in the case was not enough to stop Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo from being sentenced to seven years in prison after they investigated the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim villagers

By John Chalmers  /  Reuters, YANGON, MYANMAR

Illustration: Mountain People

Time and again, Myanmar’s government appeared at risk of blowing its prosecution of two young journalists who had exposed a massacre of 10 Muslim men and implicated security forces in the killings.

On April 20, a prosecution witness revealed in pretrial hearings that police planted military documents on Reuters reporters Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, in order to frame them for contravening the country’s Official Secrets Act.

That admission drew gasps from the courtroom.

A police officer told the court that he burned notes he made at the time of the reporters’ arrest, but did not explain why.

Several prosecution witnesses contradicted the police account of where the arrests took place.

A police major conceded the “secret” information allegedly found on the reporters was not actually a secret.

Outside the courtroom, military officials even admitted that the killings had indeed taken place.

These bombshells bolstered central assertions of the defense: The arrests were a “planned and staged” effort to silence the truthful reporting of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.

In the end, the holes in the case were not enough to stop the government from punishing the two reporters for revealing an ugly chapter in the history of Myanmar’s young democracy.

On Monday, after 39 court appearances and 265 days of imprisonment, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were found guilty of breaching the Official Secrets Act and sentenced to seven years in prison.

Judge Ye Lwin ruled that the two reporters had breached the secrets act when they collected and obtained confidential documents.

Delivering his verdict in the small courtroom, he said it had been found that “confidential documents” discovered on the two would have been useful “to enemies of the state and terrorist organizations.”

After the verdict was delivered, Wa Lone told a cluster of friends and reporters not to worry.

“We know we did nothing wrong,” he said, addressing reporters outside the courtroom. “I have no fear. I believe in justice, democracy and freedom.”

The prosecution of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo has become a landmark press freedom case in Myanmar and a test of the nation’s transition to democratic governance since decades of rule by a military junta ended in 2011.

The military, though, still controls key government ministries and is guaranteed 25 percent of parliamentary seats, giving it much power in the fledgling democracy.

During the court hearings, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and leaders from several Western countries called for the reporters’ release.

After the verdict, US Ambassador to Myanmar Scot Marciel said that the ruling was “deeply troubling” for everybody who had struggled for media freedom in the country.

“I’m sad for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, and their families, but also for Myanmar,” he said.

The two reporters were convicted “without any evidence of wrongdoing and in the face of compelling evidence of a police setup,” Reuters editor-in-chief Stephen J. Adler said.

The verdict, was “a major step backward in Myanmar’s transition to democracy,” he said.

Burmese government spokesman Zaw Htay did not respond to requests for comment about the verdict.

A week before the ruling, UN investigators said in a report that Myanmar’s military had carried out mass killings and gang rapes of Muslim Rohingya with “genocidal intent,” and that the commander-in-chief and five generals should be punished.

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