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Myanmar's Prosecution of Reuters Reporters Highlights Mounting Challenge to Press

Detained Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo sit beside police officers as they leave court in Yangon, Myanmar, July 9, 2018. The two were charged with breaching the colonial-era Official Secrets Act.

This week's decision by a Myanmar court to proceed with the trial of two Reuters journalists,who were investigating the brutal military crackdown in Rakhine State, highlights the huge challenges faced by reporters operating in the country.

After seven months of pre-trial hearings, a court in Yangon ruled Monday that the trial against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo would proceed. They are being charged under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which holds a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison, charged with handling secret documents and endangering national security.

The pair were arrested in December in norther n Yangon. The prosecution claims that they were detained during a routine patrol, but the journalists have told their family that they were invited to a meeting with police officers, where they were given the documents shortly before being arrested.

At the time of their arrest Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were investigating the killing of 10 Rohingya men at Inn Din village, in northern Rakhine State, in September. The alleged incident happened a few days after attacks on military outposts by fighters from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which led to the crackdown that saw an estimated 700,000 people flee over the border into Bangladesh.

Myanmar’s military, supported by the government, has largely denied any wrongdoing, although it admitted that some security officials were involved in the Inn Din incident; in April, seven soldiers were sentenced to 10 years in prison for their role.

The prosecution’s case against the pair has come under considerable criticism. In April, a prosecution witness, Police Captain Moe Yan Naing, told the court that officers were ordered to entrap Wa Lone, something the military has denied. After his testimony, Moe Yang Naing was sentenced to a year in prison for breaking police protocol.

FILE - Detained Reuters journalist Wa Lone gestures to the media as he is escorted by police after a court hearing in Yangon, Myanmar, Apr. 11, 2018.
FILE - Detained Reuters journalist Wa Lone gestures to the media as he is escorted by police after a court hearing in Yangon, Myanmar, Apr. 11, 2018.

Speaking to reporters after Monday’s hearing, Khin Maung Zaw, who represents the Reuters journalists, said the outcome showed how poor the state of press freedom is in the country.

“Press freedom is very bad, not only this case, but many cases,” he said. “You cannot say press freedom is backsliding, because for that you need to have some advance. Press freedom hasn’t improved than since [the days of] the military government.”

International groups have also criticized the decision.

In a statement, Reuters President Stephen J. Adler said the trial was “baseless”.

“These Reuters journalists were doing their jobs in an independent and impartial way, and there are no facts of evidence to suggest that they’ve done anything wrong or broken any law,” he said.

Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, called it a “sad day for Myanmar’s fledging democracy”.

“This outrageous ruling affirms that politics rather than the law or evidence are what matters in this case. The only way to reverse the damage is to release Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo immediately,” he said.

Although it is the most high profile, the Reuters case is not the only example of journalists in Myanmar being arrested in recent years. Last year, three reporters were arrested and spent months in prison for covering a drug ceremony in an area controlled by an ethnic armed group; they were charged under the Unlawful Associations Act. Late last year, three journalists and their driver were arrested and sentenced to months in prison for flying a drone near the parliament building in Nay Pyi Taw.

Su Myat Mon, a journalist for local outlet Frontier Myanmar, said the Reuters case had created a climate of fear among journalists.

“Currently, it’s very depressing to be a journalist under these conditions. It’s unpredictable, because you could be arrested at any time” she told VOA.

Despite the challenges, Su Myat Mon said that it wouldn’t deter her, and her colleagues from doing their work .

“It doesn’t stop me. I just want to continue doing what I am doing, regardless of the conditions we are operating under this government and the military,” she said.