The decision of Myanmar’s Supreme Court to uphold the convictions and 7-year prison sentences for Reuters journalists and 2018 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award honourees Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo is a devastating blow to these brave young journalists and their families, and a dark sign for freedom of expression in the country; President Win Myint and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar State Counsellor, must intervene immediately and grant both men a pardon, PEN America said in a statement yesterday.
In ruling on the appeal, Reuters reports that Supreme Court Justice Soe Naing told the court, “They were sentenced for seven years and this decision stands, and the appeal is rejected,” and provided no further explanation. This is the second failed appeal in the case. In January, the Yangon Regional High Court rejected a similar appeal, alleging that the reporters’ behaviour showed intended harm for the country.
The two reporters were initially convicted and sentenced to 7 years in prison on September 3, 2018. Arrested on December 12, 2017, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were charged under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act; both pleaded not guilty to the charges. Prior to their arrest, the pair had been investigating the execution of 10 Muslim Rohingya men in the village of Inn Din. Their work contributed to a Reuters exposé published in February 2018, for which they and their colleagues won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting just last week. The military admitted to the killings and convicted 7 soldiers involved in the crimes in early 2018. Hearings during Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s trial clearly demonstrated not only a lack of evidence against the two journalists—the documents they are accused of possessing are not secret, and there is no evidence of their intent to harm the country—but also included a testimony from a police officer who attested that the police had framed the Reuters journalists in a pre-meditated set-up. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have spent more than sixteen months in prison, separated from their families, while the preliminary hearings, trial proceedings, and appeal have been underway.
“With this devastating and wrongful decision, the Myanmar Supreme Court has disappointed not only Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo and their families, but all those who maintained hope that the rule of law could still prevail in Myanmar,” said Suzanne Nossel, Chief Executive Officer of PEN America. “From the moment of their arrest, the campaign against these dauntless young reporters has been a disgraceful attempt to intimidate Myanmar’s fledgling free press. While they are honoured and recognized around the world for their stellar reporting on a matter of vital importance, it is a travesty that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo should remain behind bars. Myanmar’s political leadership, however, can still right the grievous miscarriage of justice against these intrepid and celebrated journalists. We call on President Win Myint and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s government to grant Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo a pardon without delay so they can return to their families and their work.”
In May 2018, PEN America honoured Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo with the 2018 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, conferred annually on an imprisoned writer or writers targeted for exercising freedom of speech. Of the 43 jailed writers who have received the award since 1987, 37 have been released due in part to the global attention and pressure the award generates. At the Gala, luminaries including Stephen King, Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Morgan Freeman, Cynthia Nixon and America’s leading writers, journalists and publishers joined in an urgent call for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s freedom, and Margaret Atwood presented the award to members of their families. Dozens of literary luminaries including bestselling authors Chimamanda Adichie and Jonathan Franzen, journalists Christiane Amanpour and Bob Woodward, cultural icons Marina Abramović and Stephen Sondheim, and many more, also signed an open letter urging Myanmar authorities to release Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. In November, more than 50 of the world’s leading human rights and free expression organizations joined together to condemn the verdict and call for the journalists’ release. And on December 22, PEN Myanmar presented an “Outstanding Protection of Free Expression” Award to Captain Moe Yan Naing, the police officer who testified at the Reuters journalists’ trial, praising the whistleblower for practicing free expression and telling the truth despite the consequences for himself and his family. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were among the journalists, described as “The Guardians,” selected by Time Magazine as its 2018 Person of the Year.