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

As leader of the opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi had criticised the junta’s treatment of journalists. In 2014, she reportedly described as “very excessive” a prison sentence of 10 years with hard labor handed down to four local journalists and their boss.

They were found guilty of trespassing and contravening the Official Secrets Act, the same law used to prosecute the Reuters reporters.

“While there are claims of democratic reform, this is questionable when the rights of journalists are being controlled,” the local Irrawaddy newspaper quoted her as telling reporters in July 2014.

A government spokesman did not answer calls by Reuters seeking comment on Aung San Suu Kyi’s statement.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested on the evening of Dec. 12. During hours of testimony in July, they described that night and the interrogations that followed.

They told the court that their heads were covered with black hoods when they were transported to a police interrogation site.

They were deprived of sleep for three days during their grillings, they said.

At one point, Kyaw Soe Oo said, he was punished and made to kneel on the floor for at least three hours.

A police witness denied that the reporters were deprived of sleep and that Kyaw Soe Oo was forced to kneel.

Describing the night of their arrest, Wa Lone said he and Kyaw Soe Oo were detained almost immediately after being handed some documents at a restaurant by a police lance corporal he had been trying to interview for the massacre story.

The policeman had invited Wa Lone to meet and Kyaw Soe Oo accompanied him, Wa Lone said.

When the two reporters exited the restaurant, they were grabbed by men in plain clothes, handcuffed and shoved into separate vehicles, they both said.

As they were driven to a police station, Wa Lone said, a man who appeared to be in charge called a senior officer and told him: “We’ve got them, sir.”

The interrogation centered on the journalists’ reporting and their discovery of the massacre, not on the allegedly secret state documents, Wa Lone told the court.

One officer, he said, offered “possible negotiations” if the massacre story was not published.

Wa Lone said he rejected the overture.

At one point, police chastised him for reporting on the Rohingya, Wa Lone said.

“You are both Buddhists. Why are you writing about kalars at a time like this? They aren’t citizens,” he said he was told.

Kalar is a slur widely used in Myanmar to describe Muslims, especially Rohingya and people of South Asian origin.

It was two weeks from the time of their arrest before Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were allowed contact with their families and lawyers.

In late December, they were sent to Yangon’s Insein Prison, a colonial-era building that became an emblem of the former military junta’s repressive rule.

For decades, dissidents were held alongside murderers, thieves and drug dealers. Aung San Suu Kyi even spent a brief period there.

“I found out my cell was built in 1865. It was used for the prisoners before they were killed,” Wa Lone told a colleague before one court hearing, amused to have discovered he was living on a Victorian-era death row.

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The first hearing came on Dec. 27, which was overcast with a few specks of drizzle. Some reporters had gathered outside the courthouse before dawn in case police tried to rush through the proceedings.

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