MAE SAI, Thailand — A Myanmar judge on Monday charged two Reuters journalists with violating the country’s colonial-era secrets act over their coverage of the Rohingya crisis. The two will now go to trial in what has been a closely-watched test of press freedoms in the country, drawing condemnation from foreign governments and press watchdogs.
Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were charged with breaking the country’s Official Secrets Act, an offense punishable by up to 14 years in prison. They were arrested in December and accused of obtaining secret documents while reporting on the killing of 10 Rohingya boys and men in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state.
Judge U Ye Lwin, who has been presiding over the trial, said the men have been charged for “getting, collecting and transferring secret documents regarding operations of the [Myanmar] police force.”
The charging decision means the case against them will now be brought to trial, dragging out the case for several more weeks. It could be months before a ruling is reached on whether they will be sentenced, and for how long. The two journalists entered a plea of not guilty.
“If the judge wanted to, he could drop the charges, as one of the major witnesses testified that the journalists were entrapped,” said Khin Maung Zaw, the lawyer for the men. “But since he made his decision, we are going to defend that they acted ethically to uncover unlawful acts in Rakhine state.”
Zaw Htay, spokesman for the Myanmar government, did not respond to request for comment Monday. He said previously in responses to The Post that the court would make its decision according to “the rule of law” and that the government has assured that the pair will be able to defend themselves in fair court hearings.
Stephen Adler, the editor in chief and president of Reuters, said, “These Reuters journalists were doing their jobs in an independent and impartial way, and there are no facts or evidence to suggest that they’ve done anything wrong or broken any law. … Today’s decision casts serious doubt on Myanmar’s commitment to press freedom and the rule of law.”
Lawyers for the pair say that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were entrapped by police officers, broke no laws and were simply doing their jobs as reporters. The two journalists were invited by police officers to a meeting Dec. 12 at a restaurant in Yangon, where they were handed papers that allegedly linked security forces to an attack on Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state.
The journalists say they were then almost immediately arrested by police, who held them incommunicado for two weeks and accused them of “illegally obtaining” confidential documents.
Central to the defense’s arguments is police Capt. Moe Yan Naing, who testified in court that he was ordered to “trap” one of the two journalists by handing them the documents as a pretext for arrest. The officer has since been sentenced to a year in prison for violating the police force’s disciplinary code, and his family was evicted from their home in what the government said was an unrelated matter.
Media organizations and the international community see the closely watched case — packed with contradictions, conflicting accounts by police officers and absurd moments — as a litmus test for press freedom in Myanmar. During the course of the court proceedings, a police witness testified that he burnt his notes after the journailsts were arrested.
As the judge made his ruling, family and friends of the pair looked almost resigned to the news, having watched their loved ones shuttling back and forth, handcuffed and flanked by police officers, for almost seven months. Before he was dragged away by officers, Kyaw Soe Oo exchanged words with his daughter, a toddler, who had been waiting behind barbed wires before the court hearing started to catch a glimpse of her father.
Wa Lone has become known for his resilience and optimism during the course of the proceedings, photographed with a signature two thumbs up gesture flashed to cameras and reporters as he enters the Yangon court.
Speaking after the court session, Wa Lone said that the men were investigating human rights violations committed in Rakhine state — their jobs as reporters.
“We did nothing wrong and nothing unethical,” he said.
Kyaw Ye Lynn reported from Yangon.