Today’s conviction of Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo by a Yangon court demonstrates the Myanmar government’s willingness to use the judiciary as a tool to silence those reporting on human rights violations against Rohingya civilians in Rakhine State, said ARTICLE 19. The two reporters were arrested while researching a massacre of Rohingya men and boys by state security forces, underscoring the grave risks faced by investigative journalists in the country.
“The court has rendered itself complicit in the government’s efforts to obscure the campaign of ethnic cleansing that is being perpetrated against the Rohingya and to whitewash crimes committed by soldiers and other authorities,” said Matthew Bugher, ARTICLE 19’s Head of Asia Programme. “Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have played an indispensable role in unearthing the truth about the horrors that have unfolded in Rakhine State over the past year. They should be freed immediately so that they can be reunited with their families and resume their important work.”
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested on 12 December 2017 while investigating the execution of ten Rohingya men and boys by Myanmar Army soldiers in Inn Din village in northern Rakhine State. Reuters subsequently published an in-depth report on the massacre, which drew from the research conducted by Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. In April, the military announced that seven soldiers had been sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment for their role in the killings.
The court in Yangon convicted Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo under the Official Secrets Acts and sentenced the two journalists to seven years’ imprisonment. The Official Secrets Act is a colonial-era law that carries a penalty of up to 14 years’ imprisonment for possession or dissemination of materials that are “calculated to be or might be or [are] intended to be, directly or indirectly, useful to an enemy”. The vaguely worded law was frequently used by prior military governments to imprison critics and shield government actions from public scrutiny. ARTICLE 19 has called on the current government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, to reform or repeal the Officials Secrets Act and other repressive legislation.
During the trial and in pre-trial hearings, the court was presented with evidence indicating that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had been caught in a poorly concealed entrapment plot. The two journalists described how they were arrested shortly after police officers handed them a set of official documents in a restaurant in Yangon. A police witness provided a detailed description of orders given by a police chief to set up the sting operation. The testifying officer was subsequently jailed for one year for violating police disciplinary rules. One police witness consulted notes written on his hand while giving testimony in court, another admitted burning notes relating to the arrest of the two men, and a third stated that he was not aware of proper procedures for recording arrests.
The criminal proceedings against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were part of broader efforts by the Myanmar government to obstruct reporting on human rights violations in Rakhine State. In response to attacks on border posts and police stations by Rohingya militants in August 2017, state security forces carried out a ruthless campaign of violence targeting the Rohingya population in northern Rakhine State. Soldiers, border guard forces, police officers and local Buddhist mobs killed and raped Rohingya civilians and destroyed Rohingya villages on a massive scale. More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh in the past year. On 27 August 2018, the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar issued a report describing widespread and systematic human rights violations against the Rohingya and calling for senior generals to be prosecuted for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes by the International Criminal Court or another competent tribunal.
Despite the overwhelming evidence of crimes—largely in the form of satellite imagery and testimony collected from Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh—the Myanmar government has persisted in dismissing reports of human rights violations in Rakhine State. Authorities have denied reporters, diplomats and human rights monitors access to Rakhine State except as part of highly choreographed visits chaperoned by government officials. Moreover, the government has blocked access to the country by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar and a UN Fact-Finding Mission tasked with investigating human rights violations by the Myanmar military.
“The government, by persisting with its absurd denialism, is stacking injustice upon injustice,” said Matthew Bugher. “Myanmar cannot hide the truth about its treatment of the Rohingya. By imprisoning these journalists, the Myanmar government is merely underscoring its contempt for the rule of law and absolute abandonment of previous human rights commitments.”