BURMA/MYANMAR: Journalists’ arrest threatens free press

On 12 December 2017, two Burmese journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were arrested through a police sting operation in Yangon, and charged with breach of the Official Secrets Act, 1923. The Yangon district court filed charges against them under Section 3.1 (c) of the Act that penalises a person who “obtains, collects, records or publishes or communicates to any other person any secret official code…other document or information which is calculated to be or might be or is intended to be, directly or indirectly, useful to an enemy” and thereby prejudices the safety or interests of the State. The Ministry of Information alleged that they had illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media.

According to the defence lawyers however, the prosecution’s charges were not substantiated with evidence. Moreover, they argued that the arrest was merely aimed at interfering at the investigation that was being carried out by the reporters into the massacre at Inn Din village, where a mass grave had been found.

During the pre-trial hearings, a prosecution witness confessed that the police had planted the documents found on the Reuters reporters that led to their arrest, in order to frame them. There were several contradictions in the account of where the arrests took place by prosecution witnesses. The police officer present at the journalists’ arrest told the court that the notes he made at the time were burnt. A police major even conceded that the ‘secret’ information allegedly found on the reporters, was not in fact a secret.

Meanwhile, the Burmese military admitted that “10 Bengali terrorists” had been killed at Inn Din, and sentenced seven soldiers to “10 years in prison with hard labour in a remote area” for being involved in the killing.

Regardless, on 3 September 2018, the Court held the two journalists guilty, and sentenced them to seven years imprisonment. This has been widely condemned by human rights activists, organisations, States and other international bodies, seen as a crushing blow to freedom and democracy in Burma. The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is gravely disappointed at the verdict of the Yangon district court. We condemn the arrest and conviction of the Reuters journalists, and ask for their immediate release. The law under which the journalists have been convicted is a product of the colonial-era, used by the colonial administration to suppress dissent and curb free speech. A State using these same laws against its citizens is shameful. A State cannot use draconian laws to curb free speech of its citizens, out of a fear of criticism.

In court, the two journalists revealed how they were treated after their arrests. Their heads were covered with black hoods when they were transported to the police interrogation site. They were allegedly deprived of sleep for three days and made to kneel on the floor for hours. After his arrest, Wa Lone said, “I have no fear. I have not done anything wrong … The truth is on our side. Whatever the situation is, we will not be shaken. They cannot make us weak.” The AHRC stands with the fearless journalists and their attempts to report the truth. We stand for justice and freedom.
The AHRC also condemns the gross human rights violations that have taken place in Burma against the Rohingya Muslim community. We urge the government to extend support to the victims and take strong actions against the perpetrators.