Jeremy Hunt, the British Foreign Secretary, on Monday vowed to champion the cause of two Reuters journalists jailed for their reporting of the Rohingya crisis, in a case that has been denounced as a new low for press freedom in Burma.
A Burmese court sentenced Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, to seven years in prison for breaching a law on state secrets while they were investigating the mass murder of ten Rohingya men.
The Foreign Secretary added his protest to global condemnation of the ruling – the latest in a long series of human rights abuses in Burma to undermine the reputation of Nobel Peace laureate and civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
"Imprisoning journalists who write about inconvenient truths is an unconscionable blow to press freedom, and indeed everyone’s freedom. Will be raising the extremely serious case of the two Reuters journalists on my forthcoming visit to Burma (Myanmar)”, Mr Hunt said on Twitter.
The two journalists had pleaded not guilty to violating the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum sentence of 14 years. They protested that they were framed by police while investigating allegations of the massacre of a group of Rohingya men by the military.
As they were led to a police van in handcuffs after, Wa Lone shouted: “I have no fear. I have not done anything wrong. I believe in justice, democracy and freedom.”
Their sentencing falls just one week after the publication of a blistering report by a UN fact-finding mission that called for Burma’s top military generals to be investigated and prosecuted for genocide in Rakhine State, home of the Rohingya minority. Burma rejects the charges.
Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s civilian leader and former global human rights heroine, was singled out by UN investigators for failing to use her “moral authority” to stop the military’s extreme violence against the Rohingya, which has caused more than 700,000 to flee their homes.
Monday’s conviction of the journalists seeking to expose military atrocities against the Muslim minority dealt another blow to hopes that her election to government after years of house arrest would herald an accelerated transition to full democracy from military rule.
Stephen Adler, editor-in-chief at Reuters, denounced the verdict as “a sad day for Myanmar, Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, and the press everywhere,” adding that the “false charges” had been designed to “silence their reporting and intimidate the press.”
In a statement, he added: “This is a major step backward in Myanmar’s transition to democracy, cannot be squared with the rule of law or freedom of speech, and must be corrected by the Myanmar government as a matter of urgency.”
The two journalists were arrested in December while reporting on the mass killing of ten Rohingya Muslim men in the village of Inn Din, Rakhine state, last September.
Seven Burmese soldiers have since been sentenced to ten years of hard labour for their role in “contributing and participating in murder.”
The trial of the reporters who exposed the crime, and who both testified that they suffered from harsh treatment during their initial interrogations, has drawn widespread condemnation from the US, United Nations and wider international community.
Their several appeals for release on bail were rejected, and during his detention Wa Lone missed the birth of his first child, a daughter named Thet Htar Angel. Kyaw Soe Oo also has a three-year-old daughter, Moe Thin Wai Zan.
"What happened today threatens to undermine the rule of law and freedom of press that democracy requires," said Kevin Krolicki, Reuters’ regional editor for Asia. He called the verdict "heartbreaking."
Human Rights Watch condemned the “politically-motivated” charges as a return to the media repression seen during military rule.
“The outrageous convictions of the Reuters journalists show Myanmar courts’ willingness to muzzle those reporting on military atrocities,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These sentences mark a new low for press freedom and further backsliding on rights under Aung San Suu Kyi’s government.”
During eight months of hearings, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo testified that two police officers they had not met before handed them papers rolled up inside a newspaper during a meeting at a Yangon restaurant on 12 December.
Almost immediately afterwards, they said, they were bundled into a car by plainclothes officers.
In April a police captain, Moe Yan Naing, testified that a senior officer had ordered his subordinates to plant secret documents on Wa Lone to “trap” the reporter.
Other police witnesses have told court that the reporters had been searched at a routine traffic stop by officers who were unaware they were journalists and found to be holding secret documents from an unknown source.
The prosecution’s case was marked by inconsistencies and irregularities, including conflicting official accounts and evidence of police misconduct, Human Rights Watch said.
Attacks on free speech had intensified over the past two years, the group added, pointing to a slew of repressive laws that had been increasingly used to silence journalists and activists for perceived criticism of the government or military.
“These convictions won’t hide the horrors against the Rohingya from the world – they merely reveal the precarious state of free speech in the country and the urgent need for international action to free these journalists,” said Mr Adams.
Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International’s Director of Crisis Response, demanded that the convictions be quashed and the men unconditionally released.
The judgement sent “a stark warning to other journalists in the country of the severe consequences that await should they look too closely at military abuses. This amounts to censorship through fear,” she said.
“Today’s verdict cannot conceal the truth of what happened in Rakhine State. It’s thanks to the bravery of journalists like Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, that the military’s atrocities have been exposed.
Instead of targeting these two journalists, the Myanmar authorities should have been going after those responsible for killings, rape, torture and the torching of hundreds of Rohingya villages.”
Reuters has said it will contest the decision. “We will not wait while Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo suffer this injustice and will evaluate how to proceed in the coming days, including whether to seek relief in an international forum,” said Mr Adler.