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Updated on July 10, 2018 From Myanmar Times

Ruling deals ‘hammer blow’ to press freedom, judiciary: rights experts

Two local reporters accused of breaking Myanmar’s “draconian” secrecy law for their investigation of the Rakhine crisis are now charged by a court. Rights groups said the ruling deals a “hammer blow” to press freedom in the country, is a “black day” for all journalists and reporters working here, and has thrown serious doubt on the independence and impartiality of the judiciary.
        On Monday, Yangon district judge Ye Lwin decided to allow the Reuters case to proceed to trial, setting a first court date for July 16. Section 253(1) of Myanmar’s Code of Criminal Procedure requires a judge to dismiss charges against accused persons if the evidence presented fails to warrant a conviction. A motion for charges to be dismissed on this basis, submitted by defence lawyers, was effectively rejected by the decision on Monday.
        Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were charged under the little-used, colonial-era Official Secrets Act, section 3, 1(C), which carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years. Both journalists pleaded with the judge in court that they did not break the law and worked as a journalist “according to the ethics.”
        “The court’s decision didn’t mean that we are guilty with the state secrets act. We will face the court and are not shaken by the decision to charge us with the secrets act,” Wa Lone said after the hearing. He added that journalists need to investigate and uncover injustice. If the police and the Tatmadaw (military) broke the law, journalists must undertake investigations. That’s the responsibility of the journalists, he said.
        Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were detained on December 12 last year for allegedly obtaining confidential documents relating to Rakhine State and had no access to legal representation for almost two weeks. The Reuters investigation of the Inn Din village massacre was what prompted Myanmar authorities to the arrest the journalists.
        Defence lawyer Khin Maung Zaw said both reporters would be called to testify at the next hearing.
        “The court announced that the journalists were charged under the secrets act as they tried to take secret documents with a purpose that is contrary to the interests of the government. I’m not happy with that decision and it may also serve as a measure to stifle press freedom in Myanmar,” he said. The defence lawyers have applied to check four new witnesses for Wa Lone and two for Kyaw Soe Oo in the next hearing.
        Family members of the journalists had hoped to see them released. Chit Su, wife of Kyaw Soe Oo, said she was “shocked” by the court’s decision.
        “I thought he could come back home with us after the prosecution failed to show how they broke the Official Secrets Act. I will stay strong in the next steps at the court,” she remarked.
        Domestic media were widely disappointed by the decision. U Ye Naing Moe, founder of Yangon Journalism School, said he was “sad” to hear the ruling. He believed that all journalists and professionals in the media would be worried about the court’s decision.
        “I’d like to ask the authorities whether they want to see reporters only writing ‘everything is fine’ or whether they want real reporters who investigate issues that are essential for the public to know,” he said.
        This development sets off alarms about press freedom and freedom of expression in Myanmar, said U Aung Myat Khaing of free speech group Article 19. The group stated that the decision underscores Myanmar’s “wide-ranging efforts to obstruct reporting on the Rakhine crisis and to whitewash human rights violations by authorities.”

‘Black day for press freedom’

For Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International’s director of crisis response, “This is a black day for press freedom in Myanmar.” She called the decision “farcical” and “politically motivated.”
        “Charging them under this draconian law – even after widespread national and international condemnation – is a clear sign that the authorities are intent on silencing critical voices. It also serves notice to other journalists working in the country that speaking out comes with serious consequences,” she said.
        “The court’s decision to charge these two journalists is a hammer blow to freedom of the media in Myanmar and shows just how fragile the country’s democratic reforms are,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said. “Today’s action is a clear indication of the significant backsliding on human rights we’ve seen in Myanmar since the 2015 election.”
        As the prosecution has failed to provide credible evidence of any wrongdoing throughout six months of hearings, it is “hard to imagine a valid legal rationale for allowing ongoing prosecution of the journalists,” according to Sean Bain, legal adviser for the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) in Yangon.
        “Today’s decision raises real concerns about the independence and impartiality of the judiciary and prosecution when confronted with politically sensitive cases. The case significantly undermines the government’s stated commitments to reforming and building public confidence in the judicial process,” Mr Bain said.
        “The case is also emblematic of the lack of adherence to fair trial rights in Myanmar,” Mr Bain added. Their confinement remains unlawful given “an initial period of incommunicado detention without access to lawyers, and other flagrant violations of the fair trial rights guaranteed in the Constitution, statutes and international law.”
        Laetitia van den Assum, a member of the former Rakhine Advisory Commission chaired by Kofi Annan, told The Myanmar Times that the court’s decision is “Myanmar’s loss”.
        “When the facts of the case and the testimony in open court strongly indicate that there is no case to answer and that there are political factors at play, questions arise about the judiciary. This not only sends a strong message to other journalists, but to all who have to be able to rely on a credible, independent and impartial judiciary,” the diplomatic expert said.
        Embassies in Yangon and foreign dignitaries have expressed disappointment with the court and continued to call for the immediate release of the two reporters. Mark Field, UK foreign minister, said that the ruling will have a “chilling effect on media freedom” that will hurt Myanmar’s democratic transition.
        The spokesperson of the European Union said the court decision “threatens fundamental freedoms, a free media and the public’s right to information in Myanmar,” while the US Embassy in Yangon called it “a setback for press freedom and the rule of law in Myanmar.”
        The Danish embassy stated that it is “extremely disappointing” for an NLD-led government, “on the basis of ancient legislation created by the British colonial government in 1923, to criminalise the sharing of almost any kind of information held by the government.
        “This legislation clearly violates the right to freedom of expression, a right which many NLD members fought and went to prison for under the military regime,” the embassy said, calling on the government to stop this “disgraceful process”.

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