This Wednesday, a judge in Myanmar ruled on against the appeal for dismissal of a case against two Reuters journalists. They have been imprisoned in Myanmar, accused of violating the “Official Secrets Act” after they were arrested with papers given to them by the police.
The preliminary hearings were held in a court in Yangon and have been ongoing since January to determine whether Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo will be charged with the violation of the Official Secrets Act, which has a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison. According to Judge Ye Lwin, there is “proper reason” for the accusations against the reporters so “they should not be released.” The judge believes it is not yet time for the motion to be dismissed because he wants to hear the remaining eight prosecution witnesses out of twenty-five.
The two journalists were arrested on December 12 while they were investigating the massacre of 10 Rohingya civilians in the Rakhine State. The massacre was part of the violent attacks on Rohingya Muslims by Myanmar’s military and Buddhist mobs that drove thousands of refugees into Bangladesh due to the ethnic cleansing.
While investigating the massacre, the journalists came across photos of the 10 victims kneeling with their hands tied behind their backs before their execution. They also discovered the mass graves where the victims were buried.
The arrest came after the police handed the journalists some papers at a restaurant. According to the defense, the reporters were arrested as soon as they were handed the papers, so they never got a chance to even look at them. Whilst the prosecution maintains that the papers contained secret information and that the journalists having them in their possession is proof of their intent to undermine the country’s security.
This decision came 12 hours after the military announced that 4 army officers and three soldiers would be facing 10 years of hard labor for their participation in the massacres. This is a much lesser punishment than the one Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo face.
“Why do soldiers, who are found guilty of murder, get 10 years while we journalists, who exposed the murder, face 14 years in prison?” Wa Lone asked a crowd of supporters and reporters while he was being taken back to Insein Prison after the hearing.
The ruling came after months of legal struggles for the two men, who have been imprisoned this entire time while the weekly evidentiary hearings took place.
The judge’s decision means that the trial will continue as the prosecution presents its case in the coming weeks. And after the trial is over, the judge will decide whether to charge the reporters and proceed with the defense’s case.
The prosecution of the reporters is symbolic of the larger suppression of free expression by the government Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate. The prosecution was sanctioned by her government, and is supervised by her attorney general, a former military officer.
The hearing was attended by family members, journalists, and foreign diplomats. The case is internationally condemned. Denmark’s ambassador to Myanmar, Peter Lysholt Hansen, issued a statement asking the government to release the journalists. “Without their investigation, the massacre in Inn Din village in northern Rakhine State would never have been uncovered,” he said. “They should be thanked and not punished.”
The European Union has also been following the case, and condemned the case and called it unjustified, they said the reporters’ being imprisoned amounts to “serious intimidation against journalists doing their jobs in Myanmar.”