Yangon: Messages of solidarity poured in Wednesday from around the world on the one-year anniversary of the arrest of two Myanmar Reuters journalists who exposed a massacre of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state.
Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were arrested in Yangon on December 12 last year and handed seven-year jail sentences 10 months later under a state secrets law as they probed the extrajudicial killing of 10 Rohingya men during the military’s brutal crackdown on the stateless minority last year.
The guilty verdict sparked condemnation, including from US Vice President Mike Pence, and Reuters hired prominent rights attorney Amal Clooney to assist with the case.
The reporters were also honored alongside other persecuted or slain journalists in Time magazine’s Person of the Year issue this week as concerns grow for deteriorating press freedoms in Myanmar and elsewhere in the world.
Despite an advocacy campaign the two men remain behind bars, with an appeal set for later this month.
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“The fact that they remain in prison for a crime they did not commit calls into question Myanmar’s commitment to democracy, freedom of expression and rule of law,” Reuters editor-in-chief Stephen J. Adler said in a statement on the anniversary of the arrest.
Social media has filled with images of supporters making the “thumbs up” gesture that became a hallmark of the pair’s court appearances.
“We will face it (the verdict) with stability and courage,” Wa Lone said after the sentence was handed down in September.
“The government can detain us in the prison but… don’t close the ears and eyes of the people,” Kyaw Soe Oo said.
Both men are fathers and Wa Lone’s wife Pan Ei Mon gave birth to their first child shortly before he was convicted.
Time jointly honored a number of journalists — including the slain columnist Jamal Khashoggi, Philippine journalist Maria Ressa and the workforce of the US newspaper Capital Gazette, five of whose staff were killed in a June shooting — “for taking great risks in pursuit of greater truths”.
Dozens of supporters gathered in downtown Yangon on Wednesday afternoon, many wearing T-shirts proclaiming “Journalism is not a crime”, and brandishing posters of the Time magazine front cover dedicated to the reporters.
“This is not fair,” said supporter Moe Thway. “This case has disgraced our country.”
– ‘Sham’ trial –
The reporters’ trial was widely regarded as a sham — and punishment for reporting on the September 2017 massacre in Inn Din village led by Myanmar security forces.
One whistleblowing police officer told the court his superior ordered a sting to entrap the reporters — testimony the judge chose to ignore.
Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi remained defiant when pressed on the case, insisting that due process was followed.
Her reaction further tarnished her image as a democracy icon overseas after she refused to speak up for the Rohingya during the crackdown.
More than 720,000 Rohingya Muslims fled over the border into refugee camps in Bangladesh, bringing with them horrific reports of widespread murder, torture, rape, and arson.
UN investigators have called for top generals to be prosecuted for genocide and accused Suu Kyi and her government of complicity.
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Myanmar rejects almost all allegations, saying it was defending itself against Rohingya militants.
But a court did convict soldiers accused of carrying out the Inn Din massacre to 10 years each.