Two Reuters journalists accused of breaching Myanmar’s state secrets law while reporting on a massacre of Rohingya Muslims were jailed for seven years Monday, fuelling further international outrage a week after the army was accused of genocide.
Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, who have been held in Yangon’s Insein prison since their arrest in December, were charged with violating the Official Secrets Act, a draconian British colonial-era law which carries a maximum sentence of 14 years.
The case has sparked an outcry among the international community as an attempt to muzzle reporting on last year’s crackdown by Myanmar’s security forces on the Muslim Rohingya minority in Rakhine state.
Army-led “clearance operations” drove 700,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh, carrying with them widespread accounts of atrocities — rape, murder and arson — by Myanmar police and troops.
The reporters denied the charges, insisting they were set up while exposing the extrajudicial killing of 10 Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine village of Inn Din in September last year.
They had told the court they were arrested after being invited to dinner by police in Yangon, who handed them documents.
As they left the restaurant, the pair were detained for possessing classified material.
But Judge Ye Lwin was unmoved by their testimony.
“The culprits intended to harm the interests of the state. And so they have been found guilty under the state secrets act,” he told the packed Yangon court.
“They are sentenced to seven years in prison each.” Kyaw Soe Oo’s wife wept after the judge delivered the verdict.
As they were led to the waiting prison van the handcuffed pair, both Myanmar nationals, gave brief but defiant statements on the court steps.
“The government can detain us in the prison but… Don’t close the ears and eyes of the people,” Kyaw Soe Oo said.
Wa Lone, who gave a defiant “thumbs up” to the massed ranks of reporters, said: “We will face it (the verdict) with stability and courage.”
Defence lawyer Khin Maung Zaw said an appeal would be lodged as soon as possible against the verdict, which Reuters denounced as based on “false charges”.
“Monday is a sad day for Myanmar… And the press everywhere,” Stephen J Adler, Reuters Editor-in-Chief, said in a statement, adding that the outcome was “designed to silence their reporting and intimidate the press”.
The UN in Myanmar and the European Union joined the growing chorus of calls for the reporters’ release. Rights groups decried the verdict as a sign of enduring repression in a country meant to be edging towards a more open and democratic future after almost a half-century of army rule.
The ruling “sends a stark warning to other journalists in the country of the severe consequences that await should they look too closely at military abuses”, Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International’s director of crisis response, said in a statement.
“This amounts to censorship through fear.” The army has published its version of events at Inn Din village, conceding the Rohingya men were killed while in custody but saying it was a one-off case of abuse by a mixture of security forces and ethnic Rakhine locals.
Monday’s ruling comes a week after the release of an explosive United Nations-led study into abuses in Rakhine, accusing Myanmar’s army chief of heading a campaign of “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” against the Rohingya.
It also strongly criticised de facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi for failing to use her moral authority to stand up for the stateless minority.
The same day, Facebook shut down the pages of Myanmar’s army chief Min Aung Hlaing and other military top brass, in what the company said was a bid to prevent them from further fanning “ethnic and religious tensions”.
As calls mount for Myanmar’s military leaders to face an international tribunal, they have remained defiant, insisting last year’s crackdown was a proportionate response to attacks by Rohingya militants on border posts.
But Suu Kyi’s reputation as a defender of human rights has been shredded by her refusal to speak out against the military for its handling of the Rohingya crisis or in support of the jailed reporters.