More than 50 human rights organizations from around the world are calling on State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and the Myanmar authorities to release Reuters reporters and 2018 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award honorees Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were detained in December 2017 and later sentenced to 7-year prison terms under the Official Secrets Act as a punishment for investigating a massacre in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
Marking two months since their conviction on September 3, 2018, and following the news that lawyers on 5 November filed an appeal in the case, more than 50 international, regional, and Myanmar-based human rights and free expression organizations—including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), International Federation of Journalists, International Press Institute, and Article 19—have joined PEN America in issuing an open letter to State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi stating their grave concerns regarding the journalists’ unjust detention and trial, and calling on authorities to immediately and unconditionally release Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, reject their convictions, and review and amend all laws currently being used to restrict freedom of expression in Myanmar.
Mizzima is included in the local media groups who have signed the letter.
The letter reads in part: “We believe that that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo should never have been arrested in the first place, let alone prosecuted, convicted, and imprisoned. Their trial, which was already manifestly unfair, was made more so by the repeated failure to uphold key tenets of the rule of law and to build a convincing evidence-based case against these journalists… We therefore call on the Myanmar authorities to immediately and unconditionally release these two men, and reject the convictions against them.” Signatories include many organizations that provided steadfast support to Aung San Suu Kyi and other activists and journalists who were persecuted during Myanmar’s years of military rule.
“The outrageous revelations of entrapment and the contradictory evidence during their trial revealed unmistakably that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were being deliberately framed in response to their efforts to expose the truth through dogged reporting,” said Suzanne Nossel, Chief Executive Officer of PEN America. “Their conviction is a shameful black mark that has tarnished Aung San Suu Kyi’s personal reputation as well as that of her nation. Many of the organizations signing this letter, including PEN America, championed Aung San Suu Kyi’s case during her many years of unjust detention. She of all people knows what it means to be wrongfully imprisoned. We call upon her and the Myanmar government to immediately and unconditionally release Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo and revise the laws that impair freedom of expression in Myanmar.”
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, both reporters with Reuters, were detained on December 12, 2017 and convicted on September 3, 2018 for their investigative reporting on a massacre of 10 Rohingya villagers in the village of Inn Din in Rakhine State; the resulting exposé was published in February 2018. With both the pre-trial hearings and the trial itself riddled with inconsistencies, including contradictory evidence from prosecution witnesses and an admission by a police officer that the reporters had been set up, their case is the most prominent in a number of recent arrests and convictions using colonial-era laws to stifle press freedom and freedom of expression in Myanmar. Since the present government came into power, such laws have been used more frequently, contributing to a rising climate of fear and self-censorship by Myanmar reporters. Recent reports by both Myanmar-based and international watchdogs have noted the decline in media freedom with concern.
Below is the full text of the appeal:
Aung San Suu Kyi November 5, 2018
Recently, at the World Economic Conference in Hanoi, Viet Nam, you defended the September 3 conviction and sentencing of Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo for violating the Official Secrets Act, and invited anyone who believes in the rule of law to point out why the judgment was problematic. As a concerned group of more than 50 human rights and free expression organizations from around the world, we would like to take this opportunity to respond to your invitation and to call for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s immediate and unconditional release.
First and foremost, contrary to your comments, the case is a clear attempt to restrict freedom of expression and independent journalism in Myanmar. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested on December 12, 2017, in the course of doing their job as professional journalists: investigating military operations in northern Rakhine State. Specifically, the two men were investigating a massacre that took place in the village of Inn Din, during which 10 Rohingya men and boys were summarily executed by the security forces—a crime which the military later admitted to. This investigation—which came at a time when the Myanmar military and the civilian-led government rejected mounting reports of human rights violations in northern Rakhine State—was clearly in the public interest, and still is.
The law that was then used to prosecute them—the colonial-era Official Secrets Act—is one of a number of repressive laws that have been used to prosecute journalists and stymie media freedom. The Act is broadly worded, and grants wide powers to the government to determine what classifies as a “secret”—indeed, the entire Act goes well beyond the restrictions on the right to freedom of expression which are permitted under international human rights law on the grounds of national security.
Even within the terms of the Act itself, for a conviction under Section 3.1 (c), evidence should demonstrate that the accused had in their possession secret documents that “might be or is intended to be, directly or indirectly, useful to an enemy.” However, evidence and testimony presented during the pre-trial and trial hearings failed to demonstrate this was the case and instead established the following facts:
The documents Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are accused of possessing are not secret, but contain information already in the public domain;
- There is no evidence of intent to turn documents over to an enemy or to harm the country;
- Police testimony regarding the circumstances of their arrest was contradictory;
- Moreover, a police whistleblower credibly testified that the two journalists had been framed: namely, that police were ordered by their superiors to invite Wa Lone to a meeting so he could be handed documents and then immediately arrested.
- Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were subject to ill-treatment after their initial arrest, including incommunicado detention for two weeks, hooding, and sleep deprivation.
In summary, we believe that that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo should never have been arrested in the first place, let alone prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned. Their trial, which was already manifestly unfair, was made more so by the repeated failure to uphold key tenets of the rule of law and to build a convincing evidence-based case against these journalists.
We therefore call on the Myanmar authorities to immediately and unconditionally release these two men, and reject the convictions against them. We further urge your government to work towards the swift review and amendment of all laws that can be used to unlawfully restrict the right to freedom of expression, so as to bring them into line with international human rights law and standards.
Adil Soz – International Foundation for Protection of Freedom of Speech, Kazakhstan
Afghanistan Journalists Center (AFJC)
Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC), Uganda
Albanian Media Institute
Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB)
Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), Egypt
Athan – Freedom of Expression Activist Organization, Myanmar
Burma Campaign UK
Bytes for All (B4A), Pakistan
Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR)
Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI)
Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), Malaysia
Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), Philippines
Civil Rights Defenders
Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
CSW (Christian Solidarity Worldwide)
Free Expression Myanmar
Freedom Forum, Nepal
Fundamedios – Andean Foundation for Media Observation and Study, Ecuador
Globe International Center, Mongolia
Human Rights Watch
Independent Journalism Center (IJC), Moldova
Index on Censorship
Initiative for Freedom of Expression – Turkey
International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)
International Federation of Journalists–Asia Pacific
International Press Institute (IPI)
Mediacentar Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, Australia
Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA)
Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA)
Media Rights Agenda , Nigeria
Mizzima News, Burma
Myanmar Media Lawyers’ Network
Norwegian Myanmar Committee
Pakistan Press Foundation
Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
Society for Threatened Peoples – Germany
South East Asian Journalist Unions (SEAJU)
Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)
South East Europe Media Organisation
The Swedish Burma Committee
Vigilance for Democracy and the Civic State
World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers