Reuters journalists in Myanmar freed but press freedom and rule of law still in jeopardy

Photo Credit: Kremlin

Two Reuters reporters jailed in Myanmar for over 500 days were pardoned. But their story and the ongoing repression of journalists in Myanmar show that Aung San Suu Kyi’s government is unable to secure the freedom of the press in Myanmar’s judicial system.

By Skylar Lindsay

Reuters reporters U Wa Lone and U Kyaw Soe Oo were recently released from prison in Myanmar. They spent 16 months behind bars on charges related to their reporting on the Inn Din massacre of Rohingya civilians in September 2017. Their imprisonment and the Myanmar courts’ repeated rulings against their appeals drew condemnation from international civil society groups and leaders around the globe – from Pope Francis to US Vice President Mike Pence.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s report for Reuters in 2017 documented the killing and mass burial of 10 Rohingya men. The reporters were arrested while working on the story and later sentenced to seven years in prison. While they were in prison, the story won their team the Pulitzer Prize.

“Since their arrests 511 days ago, they have become symbols of the importance of press freedom around the world. We welcome their return,” said Reuters Editor-in-Chief Stephen J Adler.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s release is one very belated success story in an otherwise dark environment for press freedom and rule of law in Myanmar. At least 47 reporters have faced charges since the National League for Democracy (NLD) won elections in 2015. Myanmar is currently ranked 138 out of 180 in the press freedom index of Reporters Without Borders.

The New York Times wrote that State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition to the reporters’ release was a key reason they remained in prison. It’s not clear she was directly opposed to their release – she may have been unable to help. Regardless, the NLD government and the military are pushing the country’s freedom of the press into crisis. The case shows that when someone threatens the military’s agenda, the rule of law falls by the wayside.

President Barack Obama greets Aung San Suu Kyi during a stop at her private residence in Rangoon, Burma, Nov. 19, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Though Suu Kyi’s role in the case remains unclear, it mars her reputation

It’s unclear whether Aung San Suu Kyi played a role in securing the pardon for the reporters. The evidence that she opposed their release is weak, but she was also unwilling to outright support it.

Aung San Suu Kyi had insisted on the completion of the legal appeals process before she could get involved in the case, irrespective of the journalists’ access to a fair trial.

The case against the reporters was built on the fact that they had papers containing state secrets. The two were then charged under the 1923 Official Secrets Act. But a police captain testified that the reporters were entrapped. The captain was then convicted for violating the police disciplinary code and sentenced to a year in jail.

“While Suu Kyi’s government tried to maintain the illusion of due process, the charges were so clearly trumped up by the military to stifle their reporting that she frankly looked ridiculous,” Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, told ASEAN Today.

At a forum in Vietnam last September, she expressed doubts that critics of the verdict had understood the summary of the court’s decisions to date. “If anybody feels there has been a miscarriage of justice, I would like them to point it out,” she said.

Photo: Comune Parma/CC-BY-SA-2.0

Many took her up on the offer. Diplomats attended the trials and rights groups highlighted the fact that the reporters were entrapped. Mike Pence raised the issue with the state counsellor at an international forum in Singapore in November. Bill Richardson, former member of the Myanmar advisory board on the Rohingya crisis and American ambassador to the United Nations, recounted how Aung San Suu Kyi became very angry when he raised the issue of the jailed reporters in January.

The case also showed the military’s influence over the judiciary

The Supreme Court rejected Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s last appeal on April 23. After the ruling, government spokesman Zaw Htay indirectly communicated to the reporters’ families that if they wanted to seek a presidential pardon, they had to stop filing appeals. Pan Ei Mon, Wa Lone’s wife, said that the families followed the advice and then sent their request for a pardon.


 Mahabandoola Park and High Court, Yangon.
Photo Credit: Bessie and Kyle/Flickr

The case was not entirely Aung San Suu Kyi’s to decide. She has influence over Myanmar’s judiciary but the military, known as the Tatmadaw, has at least as much sway. Most justices on the Supreme Court are military appointees. Government and military officials often direct or coerce judges.

“Myanmar clearly still has a long way to go in terms of judicial independence. The jailing of the Reuters reporters on such flimsy and fabricated charges made that clear for the world to see,” Crispin told ASEAN Today.

The military has admitted that it is cracking down on press freedom. A spokesperson for the military’s True News Information Team said the military has “lost patience” with the media, and that it was targeting journalists using Myanmar’s criminal laws because punishments under the News Media Law are “not harsh enough.” The judiciary readily allows these politically-motivated cases.

Domestic media outlets in Myanmar are under threat

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were released as part of three pardons for more than 23,000 prisoners issued by President U Win Myint over the past month, in an annual custom of pardoning inmates around the time of Myanmar’s traditional New Year.

Sources: HRW, Myanmar Times, CPJ, Frontier

But only a small portion of the inmates released are political prisoners – as few as 20, according to Ko Bo Kyi, co-founder of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Myanmar – and the military and government are still overseeing a crackdown on expression, rule of law, and the freedom of the press.

“The problem is there are literally dozens of other reporters and bloggers facing prosecution, and none of them enjoy the kind of visibility that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

“While all those who campaigned for their release welcome the government’s decision, the reality is the country retains a range of repressive laws used to detain journalists, activists and any perceived critic of the authorities,” said Nicholas Bequelin, South East Asia Regional Director for Amnesty International.

Five performers from a traditional theatre group called Daung Doh Myo Sat are currently imprisoned in Yangon and awaiting trial for their satirical humour. Following their performance at Myanmar’s New Year festival, the military filed a complaint against members of the group for alleged defamation.

The murky chain of responsibility for the Reuters reporters’ conviction, rejected appeals and eventual pardon show that people in Myanmar can’t rely on Aung San Suu Kyi to protect the rule of law. Though Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have been released after 511 days in prison, their case and the continued repression of reporters across the country show that the NLD government and the Myanmar military have allowed press freedom in Myanmar to become a crisis.