Calls for the release of two Reuters journalists who have been in prison in Myanmar for more than six months are mounting ahead of a key hearing in their trial on Monday.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested in December over their reporting, which uncovered a massacre against the Rohingya. The men now face up to 14 years in prison for possessing classified documents relating to military operations in Rakhine State, charges they deny.
The killings they uncovered occurred during the military crackdown that caused more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees to flee to Bangladesh, and that the UN has described as “ethnic cleansing”.
The two journalists were detained on 12 December after they met with police sources at a restaurant and were handed the documents. They have been held in prison ever since, while preliminary hearings have been ongoing.
Government prosecutors are seeking charges under the Official Secrets Act. Defence lawyer Than Zaw Aung said this week the court will hear an application for discharge from the defence and then decide if the case will proceed or not. The hearing begins on 2 July.
It is a trial that has prompted outpourings of condemnation from the UN, human rights groups and even Pope Francis, who called for their release, saying: “The right to information is a right that must always be protected.”
Local journalists have repeatedly called for the release of the men, holding rallies in front of the court with reporters wearing black armbands and shirts with the words “journalism is not a crime”. The prominent human rights lawyer Amal Clooney has spoken out about the case, saying: “The outcome will tell us a lot about Myanmar’s commitment to the rule of law and freedom of speech.”
Last week, Stephen Alder, the editor-in-chief of Reuters, called for an end to the prosecution. Speaking to the Guardian, he said: “They have been imprisoned for too long on false accusations.” Alder said the case was “a wholly unwarranted, blatant attack on press freedom”.
Both journalists have remained optimistic throughout their incarceration. Wa Lone has become known for giving a double “thumbs up” whenever he walks into court for trial and Kyaw Soe Oo for using every opportunity to embrace his young daughter as he enters and leaves the courtroom.
“I completely believe the truth will come out,” Wa Lone said in handcuffs leaving the court on 18 June.
The trial has exposed the continued control of the military in Myanmar. Matthew Bugher, head of Asia Programme for Article 19, a human rights group that defends freedom of expression, said the government has demonstrated that “it will go to any length to silence those seeking to expose the truth about the grave human rights situation in Rakhine State”.
Thirty-five journalists have been arrested or charged under the current government and local journalist Hline Thint Zaw Wai said the current trial shows that the government lacks the will to protect journalists. De-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi recently broke her silence on the case in an interview with the Japanese broadcaster NHK, saying the reporters “were arrested because they broke the Official Secret Act”.
Court case twists and turns
The case has been marked by inconsistencies and contradictions throughout. In April, police captain Moe Yan Naing admitted in court that the documents were planted on Wa Lone to “trap” the journalist.
Moe Yan Naing paid the price for his testimony and was given a sentence of one year in jail for violating police discipline. His family was also evicted from their police housing.
More recently, a police witness was accused of violating police code as he copied statements from previous witnesses. A witness to testify against the two Reuters journalists also failed to show up to court on 12 June.
In May police took information from the journalists’ phones and submitted it to the court.
Shawn Crispin, south-east Asia representative from Committee to Project Journalists, criticised this handling of information, saying it jeopardises the confidentiality of sources. “Obviously there is a grave risk that information taken from journalists’ cell phones could be tampered with or otherwise distorted,” he said.
When asked for a comment on the case, the Myanmar government spokesman, Zaw Htay, was not immediately available for a comment. Previously he has said he trusted Myanmar’s courts would conduct the case according to the law.
Press freedom in shackles
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are the newest faces on a museum wall dedicated to political prisoners in Yangon. They appear next to monks marching for democracy, student protesters and poets who were imprisoned for writing prose against the military regime.
“I remember when Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said one political prisoner is already too many,” says Zaw Moe, who spent five years in prison for taking part in the student protests.
“They should not be on this wall,” Zaw Moe adds, shaking his head.