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December 11, 2018 - Updated on January 10, 2019

Myanmar: Could two Reuters journalists be freed soon?

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have been held behind bars for one year (© Daniel Bastard / RSF).
After visiting Myanmar, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) examines the possibility that imprisoned Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo could be freed in the not-too-distant future, now that a court is due to begin hearing their appeal against their seven-year jail sentences on 24 December.

On the basis of the substance of the case alone, their convictions should clearly be overturned. Arrested exactly a year ago, on 12 December 2017, and sentenced in September, Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone were the victims of a sham trial and are paying the price for their professionalism after a judicial farce. Their lawyer filed the appeal last month.

 

“We urge Myanmar’s judicial system to demonstrate its independence by ending the blindness it exhibited at the original trial,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “A year after their arrest, it is cruelly obvious that these Reuters journalists are just the collateral victims of the murky intrigues within Myanmar’s government. How much credit can we continue to give to this country’s democratic transition when the judicial system violates press freedom so blatantly?”

 

Unexpected haste

 

Throughout this case, the determination with which the police, judicial and political apparatus has persecuted Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone has been seen as placatory gesture by Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government towards the military and Buddhist fundamentalists in connection with the persecution of the Muslim Rohingya minority.

 

But the relative speed with which the justice system is preparing to hear their appeal, which was filed on 5 November, has fuelled speculation about what the two journalists can now expect.

 

According to the information gathered by RSF, President Win Myint, who is an Aung San Suu Kyi ally, could grant them a pardon for the Burmese New Year in April – a tradition in Myanmar. To this end, it would be preferable for all appeal possibilities to have been exhausted, which explains the unexpected haste.

 

Chilling message

 

In this scenario, the civilian authorities could in the end make a show of clemency towards the journalists after upholding their convictions, thereby allowing the military and nationalists to save face.

 

Such a scenario would allow Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo to rejoin their families but would also send a chilling message to other journalists who would like to work in an independent fashion. It would say: this is what will happen to you if you dare to investigate subjects that are off limits.

 

RSF issued an “incident report” in October about the threat to Myanmar’s position in the World Press Freedom Index resulting from the deterioration in “environment and self-censorship,” “transparency” and “media independence” – three of the seven indicators used to determine a country’s ranking. Myanmar is currently ranked 137th out of 180 countries.