Reuters wanted the matter dismissed and its reporters released
April 11, 2018 6:40 a.m. ET
A Myanmar court refused to dismiss a case Wednesday against two Reuters journalists who have been held in prison since December for their reporting on the Rohingya crisis, highlighting the country’s increasingly troubled shift to democracy.
The case against reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo is a microcosm of the deterioration of press freedom since Myanmar’s military drove some 700,000 minority Rohingya Muslims across the border to Bangladesh. The United Nations said that campaign, launched last August, bears the hallmarks of genocide.
Relative press freedom took root in the Southeast Asian country after the long-ruling military started a transition to democracy in 2010, culminating in an election won by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s party in 2015. But the military remains powerful, and under the constitution has control of defense and interior ministries.
‘I believe in democracy. I believe that someday we will be released from this case.’
—Wa Lone, detained Reuters journalist
Numerous journalists have faced government prosecution in recent years, and the U.N. has warned about the steady erosion of press freedoms in Myanmar. Since the anti-Rohingya operations, which the military says were in response to terrorist attacks, visas have become harder to obtain for foreign correspondents and reporters are forbidden from accessing many areas.
Starting Over: A Tale of Rohingya in Bangladesh
For the 700,000 Rohingya who fled violence in Myanmar, returning home is still impossible. Many are struggling to rebuild their lives from scratch in Bangladesh. Photo/Video: Karan Deep Singh/WSJ
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had been investigating alleged atrocities committed by the Myanmar military against Rohingya Muslims when they were detained and charged with violating the Official Secrets Act, punishable by up to 14 years in prison.
“This is an emblematic case of judicial harassment,” said Sean Bain, a Yangon-based legal adviser with the International Commission of Jurists, a human-rights group, who has been attending the proceedings. “It sends a clear message to anyone looking into human-rights issues that we will use the judiciary as a punitive mechanism.”
The pair were arrested shortly after a meeting in a restaurant in December with police officers who offered them documents, the defense says. They were arrested later that evening by other officers and accused of illegally acquiring information with the intention of sharing it with the foreign media.
As Hope Fades, Rohingya Refugees Search for the Missing (April 8, 2018)
Charged With Journalism: Reuters Reporters Face 14 Years in Myanmar Prison (Jan. 10, 2018)
Behind the Silence of Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi (Oct. 6, 2017)
The Muslim Militant at the Heart of Myanmar’s Rohingya Exodus (Sept. 13, 2017)
The defense has rejected the charges, saying the men were performing their jobs as journalists and that the contents of the documents in question had already been published by local media.
The presiding judge, Ye Lwin, ruled Wednesday that a motion to dismiss the case couldn’t be granted because only 17 of 25 witnesses called by prosecutors had been presented and the defendants themselves had not yet been questioned.
“We are deeply disappointed with the court’s decision,” said Stephen J. Adler, president of Reuters, in a statement. “We believe that there are solid grounds for the court to dismiss this matter and to release our journalists.”
The attorney general’s office, overseen indirectly by Ms. Suu Kyi, has the power to withdraw the case. People following the case say that state witnesses have given contradictory testimony about where the arrests occurred and that one police witness said he had burned his notes on the case.
On Tuesday, the military said seven soldiers who had taken part in a massacre last September that killed 10 Rohingya in the village of Inn Din had been sentenced to 10 years in prison with hard labor. Details of the massacre had been uncovered in reporting by Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.
“Journalists of that nature make the authorities nervous, particularly journalists from Myanmar who are committed to the truth,” said Matthew Smith of Fortify Rights, a human-rights group.
Wa Lone marked his 32nd birthday Wednesday and supporters brought him a cake with a candle. He didn’t have a chance to eat it before police officers hustled him back to the notorious Insein prison. “I believe in democracy,” he said. “I believe that someday we will be released from this case.”
Write to Jon Emont at email@example.com