Myanmar: Yangon court upholds conviction of Reuters journalists

ARTICLE 19 condemns today’s decision by the Yangon High Court to uphold the conviction of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, Reuters journalists who helped expose a 2017 massacre of Rohingya civilians in Rakhine State by Myanmar Army soldiers.

“The court’s decision to uphold the convictions of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo is a disgraceful act of repression and an assault on press freedom,” said Matthew Bugher, ARTICLE 19’s Head of Asia Programme. “By upholding the result of a sham trial, the court has surrendered its independence and aided the government in its crackdown on expression.”

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested in December 2017 shortly after being handed a set of official documents by police officers in an apparent set-up operation aimed at obstructing their reporting on human rights violations in Rakhine State. On 3 September 2018, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were convicted by a Yangon district court under section 3.1(c) of the colonial-era Official Secrets Act. The pair, who were jointly named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year 2018 alongside other journalists, were each sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment under the Act. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi later defended the judgment at the World Economic Forum on ASEAN in Hanoi, Viet Nam, to harsh criticism from over fifty human rights organizations.

On 5 November 2018, an appeal was filed in the Yangon High Court. The journalists’ lawyers argued that the conviction should be overturned because of due process violations, the lack of consideration given to evidence of a police set-up, and the failure by the prosecution to prove the key elements of the crime.

An August report by the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar described widespread and systematic human rights violations against the Rohingya and called for senior generals to be prosecuted for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes by the International Criminal Court or another competent tribunal. In September 2018, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution establishing an “Ongoing Independent Mechanism” to “collect, consolidate, preserve and analyse evidence of the most serious international crimes and violations of international law committed in Myanmar since 2011.”

ARTICLE 19 has repeatedly called on the Myanmar government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, to reform or repeal the Official Secrets Act. Instead, the Myanmar government and military have used a variety of tools to silence those reporting on human rights violations and ongoing armed conflicts. In addition to the Official Secrets Act, prosecutions have been brought under the Unlawful Associations Act, Import and Export Law, Telecommunications Law and criminal defamation provisions of the Penal Code. These and other laws have been used to arrest and detain scores of journalists and activists, chilling independent journalism and human rights reporting.

ARTICLE 19 calls on the Myanmar government to create an environment conducive to accurate and impactful reporting, including by initiating a long-term, multifaceted program of reform rooted in respect for human rights.

“The tactics used by Aung San Suu Kyi’s government to silence its critics are shockingly similar to those used by previous military regimes,” said Matthew Bugher. “Beyond merely freeing those unjustly detained, Myanmar’s political leaders must demonstrate resolve and do the hard work of reforming an antiquated legal code that has facilitated decades of repression”.

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