Myanmar Judge Ye Lwin has decided to proceed to trial with charges against two Reuters journalists accused of violating Myanmar's colonial-era Official Secrets Act in their coverage of the Rakhine crisis.
The decision was announced in a hearing this morning that lasted less than 20 minutes.
Both journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo pled not guilty in the hearing.
The trail is set to begin on 16 July.
Mr Stephen J. Adler, President and Editor-in-Chief, Reuters expressed his disappointment with the turn of events.
“We are deeply disappointed that the court declined to end this protracted and baseless proceeding against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. These Reuters journalists were doing their jobs in an independent and impartial way, and there are no facts or evidence to suggest that they’ve done anything wrong or broken any law. They should be released and reunited with their families, friends, and colleagues. Today’s decision casts serious doubt on Myanmar’s commitment to press freedom and the rule of law,” said Mr Adler in a press statement.
The pictures of Wa Lone's signature thumbs up, of Kyaw Soe Oo holding his tiny daughter, had started to look eerily similar as the 29th pre-trial hearing approached well over six months after they were arrested.
This appears to be only the beginning for the pair arrested last December following their reporting on the slayings of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys in the village of Inn Din.
Despite the fact that their work was followed by disciplinary actions against seven soldiers involved in “clearance operations” that have resulted in more than 700,000 Rohingya fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh, the only thing standing between the Reuters journalists and a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison appears to be the claim that they had “secret documents” in their possession.
Two police officers, Moe Yan Naing and Khin Maung Lin, were arrested at the same time as the Reuters journalists in December 2017. The first went on to offer what was characterized as a bombshell testimony implicating senior officers in a plot to entrap the reporters, while the other was mysteriously absent from court when called on to testify on June 18.
On top of this, in a recent interview with local Myanmar media, defence attorney Than Zaw Aung said that based on what he had been told by his clients, the allegedly secret documents contained information that was publicly available. He said the same for documents extracted from the journalists' phones.
“And if they were secret papers that had been leaked, why not take action against the relevant departments over the loss of the documents?” Than Zaw Aung asked, according to the media report.
In addition to the case bringing a steady succession of witnesses engaged in what some observers claim are poorly planned set-up tactics, the pair are accused of violating a low that has been dismissed as a colonial relic that is in desperate need of amendment, namely the requirement of proof that possession of secret documents poses a genuine risk to national security.
The ruling National League for Democracy-led government had been mute on the case until State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi offered oddly contradictory statements in a June 8 interview with Japanese broadcaster NHK that the Reuters journalists “broke the Official Secret Act,” but that, “we cannot say whether they were guilty or not.”
Rights groups have expressed their concerns over the case.
Human Rights Watch as an example claims the case smacked of the “tactics long-favored by past military juntas.”
There is constant uncertainty on the part of the media in Myanmar as to what can and cannot be published, with charges under Article 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Law having become a favorite for muzzling reporting deemed to be sensitive. Even when charges are dismissed, the lives of these journalists are turned upside down when they are unable to make bail and are forced to fight for their freedom from the inside of a cell.
At the very least, this type of legal harassment sends a very strong message from the state that a line has been crossed.
Clearly defining these lines will require clearly defined laws – laws that allow journalists like Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo to pursue their profession with dignity and within their legal rights. For that, Myanmar appears to have a long way to go.