The Media Today

Myanmar court confirms Reuters reporters’ sentence

April 24, 2019

In September, a court in Myanmar convicted Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, two reporters for Reuters, of violating the Official Secrets Act and sentenced them to seven years in prison. They had already been in jail for 265 days. The journalists appealed the verdict. In January, Yangon High Court turned them down. Yesterday, Myanmar’s Supreme Court did likewise, confirming the seven-year sentence—without elaborating on its reasoning—in what seems a decisive verdict.

The families of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo plan to ask President Win Myint for a pardon. (Press freedom groups had hoped he might offer one this month, during Myanmar’s New Year, but he did not.) Reuters is not giving up either. “Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo did not commit any crime, nor was there any proof that they did,” Gail Gove, its chief counsel, said in a statement. “We will continue to do all we can to free them as soon as possible.”

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Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are in prison because of their journalism. In late 2017—as Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, a minority Muslim population, attracted global condemnation—the two reporters were working on a story about a massacre at Inn Din, a village in Rakhine state. Ten Rohingya men had been murdered during a broader terror campaign perpetrated by Buddhist villagers and orchestrated—as well as actively abetted—by state soldiers and paramilitary police. The story was groundbreaking: many Rohingya had attested to the brutality of the security services, but Reuters was the first outlet to report Buddhist villagers and army and police insiders admitting their culpability.

In December 2017, before their story was published, Wa Lone was invited to dinner by a police official he was hoping to interview for the piece. Kyaw Soe Oo accompanied him. The official handed the pair some documents; shortly afterward, they were arrested on charges of possessing them. Months later, during their trial, an officer admitted that police set Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo up. According to Reuters’s John Chalmers, the case for the prosecution was broadly shambolic. Several of its witnesses contradicted police accounts; one conceded that the documents that provided the pretext for the arrest were not really “secret” at all. Nonetheless, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were convicted and sentenced on September 3, 2018—exactly one year and one day after the Inn Din massacre they had worked to expose.

Since the beginning, the case has acted as a focal point for mounting fears about the state of press freedom globally. Reuters has worked diligently to keep the spotlight on the story; in February last year, it published Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s final, stomach-churning reconstruction of the events at Inn Din. (The piece was co-reported by Simon Lewis and Antoni Slodkowski.) Before Christmas, Time magazine named targeted journalists as its collective “person of the year,” and put Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo on one of four special covers. (The other covers featured Jamal Khashoggi, the murdered Saudi dissident; Maria Ressa, a frequent target of authorities in the Philippines; and the newsroom of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, where a gunman killed five staffers last summer.) Last week, the Inn Din story won a Pulitzer in the international reporting category.

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The case has also been a lightning rod for growing concern about Myanmar. In 2016, after 50 years of military-dominated rule, the country looked to be at a crossroads, with Aung San Suu Kyi, an iconic pro-democracy campaigner and Nobel laureate, installed as its de facto leader after watershed national elections. Since then, however, Myanmar has backslid, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s reputation has taken a severe hit, especially over her handling of the Rohingya crisis. Some say the military has consolidated power around her; others point out that her attitude toward the Rohingya has long been questionable. (Last year, United Nations investigators found her government complicit in the “atrocity crimes” against the Rohingya, which they characterized as being driven by “genocidal intent.”) Aung San Suu Kyi has mostly stayed quiet about the case of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. When she broke her silence, last June, she said the reporters were not arrested because of their journalism, but because “they broke the Official Secrets Act.”

The case against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo is a sham and a travesty. Despite the apparent finality of yesterday’s verdict, the journalism world should continue to make that case loudly and clearly. Press freedom is wounded by arrests and prosecutions. It dies after years in prison, when public attention on its standard bearers wanes.

Below, more on Myanmar, and Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo:

  • “Aung San Suu Kyi’s shocking betrayal”: In its 2019 World Press Freedom Index, published last week, Reporters Without Borders ranked Myanmar 138th out of 180 countries worldwide. The word “Rohingya” is officially banned in the country, and journalists there are routinely prosecuted under draconian defamation laws.
  • “Values-based foreign policy”: In November, The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin reported that Mike Pence raised the treatment of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo during a summit meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi in Singapore. Pence first raised the issue in front of assembled press, but he “wasn’t just mugging for the cameras. Inside the private portion of their meeting, he pressed Aung San Suu Kyi repeatedly to pardon the two Reuters journalists, a senior administration official said.”
  • Jay Jay the Journalist: Last year, Wa Lone published Jay Jay the Journalist, an illustrated children’s book, from prison. “Many people in Myanmar think of journalists as swindlers,” his editor, Shwe Mi, told CJR’s Andrew McCormick. “There is no child who wants to be a journalist. That is why we need to introduce what journalism is to children.”

Other notable stories:

  • The Markup, a nonprofit investigative-journalism startup focused on technology’s societal impact, is in turmoil following the firing of Julia Angwin, its editor. “Angwin’s ouster stemmed from disagreements among the three co-founders—Angwin, Jeff Larson, and Sue Gardner—over how to best balance data-driven journalism and political advocacy,” Peter Sterne reports for CJR. “According to Angwin, Gardner created a spreadsheet ranking candidates for reporter positions according to their views toward technology companies.” Yesterday morning, The Markup’s seven-strong editorial staff signed a statement supporting Angwin; by day’s end, five of them—Jon Keegan, Lauren Kirchner, Adrianne Jeffries, Leon Yin, and Surya Mattu—had quit in protest.
  • Even by his own high standards, Donald Trump was on a Twitter tear yesterday. The president took aim at The New York Times (“they will have to get down on their knees & beg for forgiveness-they are truly the Enemy of the People!”) and at Twitter itself (“they don’t treat me well as a Republican. Very discriminatory, hard for people to sign on… No wonder Congress wants to get involved – and they should”). Later in the day, Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s founder and CEO, walked into the lion’s Oval Office for a meeting. Twitter said the discussion focused on the “health of the public conversation” ahead of the 2020 elections; the Post’s Tony Romm hears that Trump spent “a significant portion” of the time complaining about his declining follower count.
  • For CJR, Anna Altman updates the story of Der Spiegel as the German news magazine continues to process the revelations that Claas Relotius, one of its star reporters, fabricated sources and stories. The results of an internal investigation have yet to be made public. For now, “a dilemma… remains unresolved: whether Relotius should be understood as one bad actor who abused a viable system, or whether there is something wrong with the system.”
  • For Variety, Whitney Davis—who worked in both the news and entertainment divisions at CBS, most recently as an executive—writes that her old network has “a white problem.” The inquiry set up to investigate the conduct of Les Moonves, CBS’s disgraced former CEO, failed to catalyze a broader change in workplace culture, Davis says. CBS has been “fraught with systemic racism, discrimination, and sexual harassment,” she writes.
  • Last month, NBC’s San Diego affiliate reported that the US government compiled a secret database of journalists and activists with links to the migrant “caravan.” Border officials had, in some cases, monitored reporters and flagged their passports. Now the station, one of its reporters, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press are suing a clutch of federal agencies under the Freedom of Information Act, claiming that records related to the secret database have been unlawfully withheld.
  • In other border news, Politico’s Gabby Orr and Andrew Restuccia report that Stephen Miller, Trump’s hardline adviser, asked Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to beef up press releases about immigrants they had apprehended, telling them to include details like full names and pending criminal charges. “At one point, he wanted us to be releasing press releases every day about the people we had detained and their criminal status,” a former Department of Homeland Security official recalls. “We were constantly doing a dance just to remain in a legal place.”
  • The Daily Beast’s Sam Stein checked in with Robert Mueller—but not that one. The other Mueller, who works as a newscaster for WKRN in Nashville, says his life has gotten a little weird since his namesake was appointed special counsel. “The politicians Mueller interviews on his show have ribbed him about how long it’s taken to get to the bottom of the Trump mess,” Stein writes. “And his Facebook feed has been a cesspool of loonies and MSNBC moms offering support.”
  • And for CJR, Marie Glancy O’Shea reviews Ink, a play about Rupert Murdoch’s revival of British tabloid The Sun that officially opens on Broadway today: “Embodied by actor Bertie Carvel, Murdoch emerges as a god-like, if malformed, figure—one might say a Lucifer—who sets events in motion and appears at key moments thereafter to check in on what he’s wrought.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.