Two local reporters accused of breaking Myanmar’s “draconian” secrecy law for their investigation of the Rakhine crisis are now charged by a court. Rights groups said the ruling deals a “hammer blow” to press freedom in the country, is a “black day” for all journalists and reporters working here, and has thrown serious doubt on the independence and impartiality of the judiciary.
On Monday, Yangon district judge Ye Lwin decided to allow the Reuters case to proceed to trial, setting a first court date for July 16. Section 253(1) of Myanmar’s Code of Criminal Procedure requires a judge to dismiss charges against accused persons if the evidence presented fails to warrant a conviction. A motion for charges to be dismissed on this basis, submitted by defence lawyers, was effectively rejected by the decision on Monday.
Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were charged under the little-used, colonial-era Official Secrets Act, section 3, 1(C), which carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years. Both journalists pleaded with the judge in court that they did not break the law and worked as a journalist “according to the ethics.”
“The court’s decision didn’t mean that we are guilty with the state secrets act. We will face the court and are not shaken by the decision to charge us with the secrets act,” Wa Lone said after the hearing. He added that journalists need to investigate and uncover injustice. If the police and the Tatmadaw (military) broke the law, journalists must undertake investigations. That’s the responsibility of the journalists, he said.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were detained on December 12 last year for allegedly obtaining confidential documents relating to Rakhine State and had no access to legal representation for almost two weeks. The Reuters investigation of the Inn Din village massacre was what prompted Myanmar authorities to the arrest the journalists.
Defence lawyer Khin Maung Zaw said both reporters would be called to testify at the next hearing.
“The court announced that the journalists were charged under the secrets act as they tried to take secret documents with a purpose that is contrary to the interests of the government. I’m not happy with that decision and it may also serve as a measure to stifle press freedom in Myanmar,” he said. The defence lawyers have applied to check four new witnesses for Wa Lone and two for Kyaw Soe Oo in the next hearing.
Family members of the journalists had hoped to see them released. Chit Su, wife of Kyaw Soe Oo, said she was “shocked” by the court’s decision.
“I thought he could come back home with us after the prosecution failed to show how they broke the Official Secrets Act. I will stay strong in the next steps at the court,” she remarked.
Domestic media were widely disappointed by the decision. U Ye Naing Moe, founder of Yangon Journalism School, said he was “sad” to hear the ruling. He believed that all journalists and professionals in the media would be worried about the court’s decision.
“I’d like to ask the authorities whether they want to see reporters only writing ‘everything is fine’ or whether they want real reporters who investigate issues that are essential for the public to know,” he said.
This development sets off alarms about press freedom and freedom of expression in Myanmar, said U Aung Myat Khaing of free speech group Article 19. The group stated that the decision underscores Myanmar’s “wide-ranging efforts to obstruct reporting on the Rakhine crisis and to whitewash human rights violations by authorities.”