Verdict for Reuters journalists delayed amid UN report, Facebook bans

28 August 2018
Verdict for Reuters journalists delayed amid UN report, Facebook bans
Reuters journalist Wa Lone talks to media as he leaves Insein township court, in Yangon, Myanmar, 27 August 2018. Photo: Thet Ko/Mizzima

After 258 days in custody, two Reuters journalists accused of violating Myanmar's colonial-era Official Secrets Act will wait at least one more week to learn their fate, with Judge Ye Lwin “in poor health” and unable to appear to announce a verdict at Monday's hearing.

Without a prior indication that the verdict would be delayed until Sept. 3, dozens of journalists, diplomats and onlookers packed the dusty tea shop outside of Yangon's Insein courthouse in anticipation of the decision.

“We are not afraid or shaken … They cannot make us weak,” Wa Lone shouted to reporters as he and fellow reporter Kyaw Soe Oo were carted back to Insein Prison following the short-lived hearing, according to Reuters.

The pair was 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.

“Sending these two Reuters reporters back to jail for another week just because someone else can’t read an already written verdict shows again how both common sense and justice is failing in Myanmar's judicial system,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, wrote on Monday. “But how many more of these train-wreck style court cases will occur before the government finally recognizes the extent of damage they are doing?”

While the testimony of prior witnesses has fueled claims that the case has been a setup from the very beginning, none has been more damning than that of Police Captain Moe Yan Naing, whose sworn statement describing a plot hatched by a senior officer to entrap the journalists was accepted by Judge Ye Lwin in a May 2 hearing.

Nevertheless, phone evidence that could have been used to bolster the journalists' testimony describing a meeting at a Yangon restaurant in contrast to the state's version of events was not allowed into court. Instead, what was submitted were printed copies of 21 documents, containing “allegedly confidential government letters and plans for the development of an island off Myanmar’s west coast for tourism,” according to Reuters. 

Damning allegations

While Monday may have been uneventful for the Reuters case, it marked the release of a report by a UN fact-finding mission calling for Myanmar to either be referred to the International Criminal Court or come before an ad hoc international criminal tribunal.

“The security forces’ response to the ARSA attacks in August 2017 started within hours, 'was immediate, brutal and grossly disproportionate', suggesting 'a level of preplanning and design' consistent with Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing’s stated vision to finish 'the unfinished job' of solving 'the long-standing Bengali problem,' ” a UN press release citing the report read.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing was also one of 20 individuals and organisations, along with Myanmar military media outlet Myawady, to be banned from Facebook in Myanmar the same day.

Facebook alleged that international experts have found evidence that many of these individuals and organizations committed or enabled serious human rights abuses in the country. 

“We want to prevent them from using our service to further inflame ethnic and religious tensions,” Facebook wrote in a press release on Monday.

Traitors to their country

Regardless of whether anyone really believes that the Reuters journalists were in the possession of secret documents, the real issue at hand is whether the pair intended to bring harm to their country, something they have adamantly denied in their testimony.

Perhaps the most telling indicator of the state's position is lead prosecutor Kyaw Min Aung's assertion in court, according to Reuters, that, “Reuters is a foreign news agency that pays its reporters in dollars. It was found from the reporters that they sent their news to Reuters and their own evidence shows that Reuters sells news for money.”

The reporting on the Rakhine crisis, of which the Reuters journalists' work only represents a fraction, is commonly seen in Myanmar as being one-sided, lacking in context and failing to mention atrocities committed against other ethnic groups. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi herself has refused to make reference to Rohingya as an ethnic group, and in a 8 June interview with Japanese broadcaster NHK stated that the Reuters journalists “broke the Official Secrets Act,” but that, “we cannot say whether they were guilty or not.”

In recent testimony, Wa Lone described how his interrogators questioned his motives and used a derogatory term for Muslims of South Asian origin, asking him, “You are both Buddhists. Why are you writing about ‘kalars’ at a time like this? They aren’t citizens,” according to Reuters.

While calls by advocates for press freedom to dismiss the case of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have reached a fever pitch, these pleas may only fall on the deaf ears of a judiciary playing a political game and a public that is far from convinced of the veracity of the claims being made.