Foreign governments and rights groups joined the UN in their condemnation of a harsh jail sentence Monday for two Reuters reporters for breaking Myanmar's archaic Official Secrets Act in what some allege was a "set-up".
International condemnation of the verdict came thick and fast from the UN, EU, various governments and human rights groups, claiming the pair had been unjustly jailed for “just doing their job”.
According to a spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the UN head expressed concern over the decision and called for a review.
“The right to freedom of expression and information is a cornerstone of any democracy. It is unacceptable that these journalists were prosecuted for reporting on major human rights violations against the Rohingya in Rakhine State.
“The Secretary-General will continue to advocate for the release of the journalists. He calls for full respect of freedom of the press and all human rights in Myanmar,” said UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric.
New UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet said she was "shocked" by Myanmar's jailing of the two Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo for seven years and called for their immediate release, noting the trial was a travesty of justice and calling for the pair’s immediate and unconditional release.
A statement from the US embassy in Yangon said the case raises "serious concerns about rule of law and judicial independence in Myanmar, and the reporters' conviction is a major setback to the government of Myanmar's stated goal of expanding democratic freedoms." The US Ambassador Scot Marciel attended Monday’s trial.
"We are extremely disappointed with this verdict and sentencing and we call for the journalists to be released immediately," said a spokesman for UK Prime Minister Theresa May.
Canada's special envoy to Myanmar, Bob Rae, denounced the sentence as "a parody of justice."
Reporters Without Borders called on Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi to free the two Reuters journalists, calling the sentencing a dark day for press freedom in Myanmar.
"This grossly unfair ruling, coming at the end of a sham trial, clearly calls into question Myanmar's democratic transition," the watchdog's secretary general Christophe Deloire said in a statement in French.
In a bitter ending for a trial that has galvanized advocates for press freedom across the world, the two Reuters journalists were found guilty of violating Myanmar's colonial-era Official Secrets Act and sentenced in Yangon to seven years in prison with hard labour on Monday.
Defence attorneys are examining their options and said that they plan to launch an appeal as soon as possible.
“We will calmly face this situation with our best efforts in the appeal. Since we didn't do anything, we have no fear,” Wa Lone shouted to reporters before being loaded into a waiting police truck along with Reuters colleague Kyaw Soe Oo.
After the pair exchanged tearful embraces with their loved ones following the hour-long verdict read by Judge Ye Lwin, the situation outside of the Insein courthouse became tense, but was quickly diffused, as supporters briefly blocked the police escort from leaving.
"What happened today was wrong. What happened today was an injustice,” Asia Region Editor for Reuters, Kevin Krolicki told reporters outside of the courtroom on Monday. “Now we need some time to regroup and to work every avenue that's open to us. The government of Myanmar now has an opportunity and a responsibility to do the right thing and to free Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.”
The two Myanmar reporters were arrested in December following their investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men in the village of Inn Din in western Myanmar's Rakhine State amid a military crackdown that has sent nearly 700,000 people fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh, according to United Nations agencies.
Even though the Reuters reporting was followed by disciplinary actions against seven soldiers involved in “clearance operations,” the only thing standing between the journalists and Monday's prison sentence was the claim that they had “secret documents” in their possession.
Despite a police officer's testimony describing a plot to entrap the reporters, a succession of witnesses engaged in what appeared to be poorly planned set-up tactics, and a lack of substantial evidence concerning relevant documents in the reporters' possession, the pair will continue to fight for their freedom from the inside of a cell.
“We hope for the best and we are prepared for the worst. Because in our country the situation is like this. So this is Myanmar,” defence attorney Khin Maung Zaw told reporters after the hearing. “Hold your tongues, that is the message sent to the whole country. Don't say anything, do not be inquisitive.”
Just two days before the hearing, dozens of activists with ties to the grass-roots organisation Action Committee for Democratic Development marched with banners and black balloons across two Yangon townships to the shore of Inya Lake calling for the reporters' release.
“We are doubtful that this verdict was not influenced by the state counsellor's comments on the jailed journalists. We condemn this verdict,” Thinzar Shunlei Yi, an activist with ACDD said in reference to less-than-impartial comments made by Aung San Suu Kyi in a June 8 interview with Japanese broadcaster NHK.
NO BETTER PROFESSION
Prior to the fateful evening of December 12 in a Yangon restaurant that would result in the Reuters journalists being deemed nothing less than enemies of the state, Wa Lone was brimming with enthusiasm about his chosen profession and the impact his work was having.
"I don’t think there is a better profession than journalism for me ... after our story got published, senior Myanmar government officials quickly reacted and delivered humanitarian aid, promising the villagers to protect them against intimidation," Wa Lone said, referring to a separate story he had covered in an interview with Reuters two months prior to his arrest.
From this earlier reporting raising awareness of villagers trapped in Rakhine State's Rathedaung Township, to the irrefutable proof of extrajudicial execution in the village of Inn Din, the 32-year-old journalist proved himself to be highly effective at shedding light on injustice.
“You shouldn't forget, their investigation … went much further than others that we've seen. Because of their sources in the Myanmar security forces and in Rakhine State, they were able to expose a massacre that the government simply couldn't dismiss as refugees exaggerating, because it came from sources inside the government's own ranks,” BBC Southeast Asia correspondent Jonathan Head told the BBC World Service following the hearing.
“What they won't allow is anybody to go into Rakhine State itself and investigate as these two journalists did, and clearly anybody who thinks of doing that will now think twice if they've got to face this type of court action,” Head went on to explain.
By effectively barring any chance at objective journalism within northern Rakhine State, the military has had the opportunity to better define its own version of events. However, this does not appear to be going well, with the discovery of several shamelessly misrepresented photos referencing the Rohingya in a book recently published and credited to the army's “True News” information unit.
Myanmar's own Deputy Minister for Information Aung Hla Tun, himself having spent two decades as a Reuters journalist and previously serving as chairman of the often-criticised Myanmar Press Council, has said in the past that, “The greatest responsibility of media today in Myanmar is safeguarding our national image,” according to Frontier Myanmar.
NOT THE END
The pictures of Wa Lone's signature thumbs up, of Kyaw Soe Oo holding his tiny daughter, had started to look eerily similar prior to Monday's verdict. Barred from being at his wife's side for the birth of his own daughter on August 10, Wa Lone joins his colleague as a father kept from his family, and by many accounts, a pawn in a political standoff with no end in sight.
"The process that resulted in their convictions was a travesty of justice and will cast Myanmar as an anti-democratic pariah as long as they are wrongfully held behind bars,” Shawn Crispin of the Committee to Protect Journalists said on Monday.
With advocates for press freedom rallying around a case with an intensity that has not been previously seen in Myanmar, the hard fight towards greater press freedom and an environment where journalists can pursue their profession with dignity will continue for a country in crisis.