A Burma court has sentenced two Reuters journalists to seven years in prison for illegal possession of official documents while reporting on violence against Rohingya Muslims.
Wa Lone (pictured) and Kyaw Soe Oo had pleaded not guilty to violating the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, punishable by up to 14 years in prison, contending they were framed by police.
The verdict was postponed from a week ago because the presiding judge was ill.
Reuters editor-in-chief Stephen J Adler said in a statement: “Today is a sad day for Myanmar, Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, and the press everywhere.
“These two admirable reporters have already spent nearly nine months in prison on false charges designed to silence their reporting and intimidate the press.
“Without any evidence of wrongdoing and in the face of compelling evidence of a police set-up, today’s ruling condemns them to the continued loss of their freedom and condones the misconduct of security forces.
“This is a major step backward in Myanmar’s transition to democracy, cannot be squared with the rule of law or freedom of speech, and must be corrected by the Myanmar government as a matter of urgency.
“We will not wait while Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo suffer this injustice and will evaluate how to proceed in the coming days, including whether to seek relief in an international forum.”
Adler has previously said the reporters were simply “doing their jobs in an independent and impartial way”.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he would raise the “extremely serious” case on his forthcoming trip to Myanmar, which he announced last week in response to a UN report on human rights abuses against Rohingya Muslims in the country.
He tweeted: “Imprisoning journalists who write about inconvenient truths is an unconscionable blow to press freedom – and indeed everyone’s freedom.”
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, defence lawyer Khin Maung Zaw told reporters outside court Lone and Soe Oo would appeal “as soon as possible”.
The case has drawn worldwide attention as an example of how press freedom is suffering under the government of Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, both testified they suffered from harsh treatment during their initial interrogations.
Their several appeals for release on bail were rejected.
Wa Lone’s wife, Pan Ei Mon, gave birth to the couple’s first child in Yangon on August 10, but Wa Lone has not yet seen his daughter.
The two journalists had been reporting last year on the brutal crackdown by security forces on the Rohingya in Burma’s Rakhine state.
Some 700,000 Rohingya fled to neighbouring Bangladesh to escape the violence targeting them after attacks by Rohingya militants killed a dozen members of the security forces.
Investigators working for the UN’s top human rights body said last week that genocide charges should be brought against senior Burma military officers over the crackdown.
The accusation of genocide was rejected by Burma’s government, but is the most serious official recommendation for prosecution so far.
Also last week, Facebook banned Burma’s powerful military chief and 19 other individuals and organisations from its site to prevent the spread of hate and misinformation in connection with the Rohingya crisis.
Dozens of journalists and pro-democracy activists marched Saturday in Yangon, Burma’s biggest city, in support of the reporters.
But in the country at large, with an overwhelming Buddhist majority, there is widespread prejudice against the Rohingya, and in the government and military, there is near-xenophobic sensitivity to foreign criticism.
Burma’s courts are one of the country’s most conservative and nationalistic institutions, and the darkened political atmosphere had seemed unlikely to help the reporters’ cause.
The court earlier this year declined to stop the trial after an initial phase of presentation of evidence, even though a policeman called as a prosecution witness testified that his commander had ordered that documents be planted on the journalists.
After his testimony, the officer was jailed for a year for violating police regulations and his family was kicked out of police housing.
Other testimony by prosecution witnesses was contradictory, and the documents presented as evidence against the reporters appeared to be neither secret nor sensitive.
The journalists testified they did not solicit or knowingly possess any secret documents.
Dan Chugg, British ambassador to Myanmar, said: “Speaking on behalf of the British government, but also on behalf of EU member states, we are extremely disappointed by this verdict.
“Freedom of expression and rule of law are fundamental in a democracy, and this case has passed a long shadow over both today.
“The judge has appeared to have ignored evidence and to have ignored Myanmar law. This has dealt a hammer blow for the rule of law.”
Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said: “The outrageous convictions of the Reuters journalists show Myanmar courts’ willingness to muzzle those reporting on military atrocities.
“These sentences mark a new low for press freedom and further backsliding on rights under Aung San Suu Kyi’s government.”
Shawn Crispin, senior south east Asia representative at the Committee to Protect Journalists, said the conviction was a “new press freedom low” for Myanmar.
“The process that resulted in their convictions was a travesty of justice and will cast Myanmar as an anti-democratic pariah as long as they are wrongfully held behind bars,” he said.
“We call on Myanmar’s civilian authorities to immediately release the journalists.”
The National Union of Journalists extended solidarity to the Myanmar Journalists Association, which is seeking to defend freedom of expression in the country and said the judgement was a threat and intimidation to all media.
Seamus Dooley, NUJ assistant general secretary, described the imprisonment as “a full scale attack on human rights”, adding: “Yet again repressive legislation has been used against journalists.
“This action is intended to instil fear and to inhibit journalists from investigating buses in a country where human rights are not respected.”
Picture: Reuters/Myat Thu Kyaw