As the trial of two Myanmar journalists begins in Yangon, the case has now passed from the sphere of Myanmar’s military, which retains full control of the police, to the sphere of the elected civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, local reporters for global newswire Reuters, were arrested Dec. 12 in Yangon and have been detained by police since.
They face 14 years in prison for possessing classified material related to military operations in Rakhine State, which rights groups and the United Nations say amount to ethnic cleansing. Their families claimed the two were arrested immediately after meeting police sources for dinner, where they were handed the documents. Government spokesperson Win Htein told the press they were likely “caught in a trap.”
Before a Yangon district judge Wednesday, government prosecutors sought charges against the journalists under Section 3.1 (C) of the Official Secrets Act, a 1923 law made to deter espionage against British colonial rule. An information ministry bulletin at the time of their arrest said they had “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media.”
After a half-hour session, the case was adjourned until Jan. 23, when bail arguments will be heard. As Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were bundled back into a waiting prison van, their families broke down in shouts and tears. Outside the gates, several dozen local journalists held up a vinyl poster demanding their release. Their black T-shirts read, “Journalism is not a crime.”
Criminal cases in Myanmar are prosecuted under the attorney general, who is appointed by the president, Htin Kyaw. Though constitutionally supreme, Htin Kyaw is beholden to Aung San Suu Kyi, who, as state counselor, keeps a tight grip on the civilian government via her National League for Democracy (NLD) party.
However, the government must share power with the military, which controls all security agencies and the local bureaucracy via the home affairs ministry.
The president authorized the initial police investigation. However, the NLD civilian government could, in principle, have chosen not to seek charges. That they have pressed ahead indicates the limits of international condemnation, which has included demands for their immediate release from Western governments, and a global media spotlight.
In a statement released Wednesday, the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar said the U.S. is “disappointed by today’s decision.” The day before, global rights group Amnesty International condemned the trial, saying, “This clampdown on freedom of speech must end.”
Criticism within the country has been far more muted and largely confined to Myanmar’s journalist community. Slurs that they are traitors have matched expressions of support for the Reuters journalists on Facebook. The independent Myanmar Press Council only offered to “mediate” and did not join calls for their release.
As the Myanmar government has met the international outcry over alleged atrocities against the Rohingya with blanket denials, critical foreign media has increasingly been viewed as part of a “fake news” conspiracy aimed at destabilizing the country. Through state media, the NLD-controlled information ministry had laid the groundwork for reporters in the pay of overseas news agencies to be viewed as the equivalent of spies.
“The NLD government is firmly committed to freedom of expression. At the same, the government must promote rule of law around the country,” government spokesperson Zaw Htay told VOA. He added that the “independent judicial process” must continue, to determine whether Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are “guilty or not.”
Zin Mar Aung, an NLD parliamentarian who spent 11 years as a political prisoner, told VOA it would be difficult, in practice, for the civilian government to halt the proceedings against the journalists. The case, she said, is “sensitive” for the military, because it touches on “what happened in Rakhine State,” she said.
The trial follows a year filled with clampdowns on press freedom in Myanmar. On Monday, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists declared Aung San Suu Kyi the “Biggest Backslider in Press Freedom” in its Press Oppressors Awards.
In October, two foreign journalists, along with their fixer and driver, were prosecuted for flying a drone close to the national parliament.
In June, the editor and a columnist at local newspaper The Voice were charged with defamation for satirizing the military. The same month, three journalists from local outlets, The Irrawaddy and Democratic Voice of Burma, were arrested for making contact with an ethnic armed group in Shan State.
In all cases, after protracted trials, charges were eventually dropped, indicating a pattern that many hope will hold for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.
Lawi Weng, The Irrawaddy journalist who spent two months in jail under the colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act, expressed the same hope. He told VOA that the government could be using “political prisoners,” including jailed journalists, as “bargaining chips” to deter renewed sanctions from Western powers over the Rohingya crisis.
Asked about the NLD government’s apparent refusal to support journalists, he said, “maybe they don’t understand press freedom.”