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Independent journalism under threat in Myanmar, says U.N. report

REUTERS – Military and government officials in Myanmar have waged a “political campaign” to quash independent journalism, arresting and prosecuting many through the use of vague and overly broad laws, the U.N. human rights office said this week.

Reuters journalists Wa Lone (L) and Kyaw Soe Oo, who are based in Myanmar, pose for a picture at the Reuters office in Yangon, Myanmar December 11, 2017. Picture taken December 11, 2017. REUTERS/Antoni Slodkowski Reuters journalists Wa Lone (L) and Kyaw Soe Oo, who are based in Myanmar, pose for a picture at the Reuters office in Yangon, Myanmar December 11, 2017. Picture taken December 11, 2017. REUTERS/Antoni Slodkowski

Its report examined five cases, including that of Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, found guilty last week of breaching the law on state secrets and sentenced to seven years in prison after investigating a massacre of 10 Rohingya men.

The U.N. report called it a “particularly outrageous and high-profile example of judicial harassment against the media in Myanmar” and illustrative of how arrests and prosecutions are conducted “in violation of the right to freedom of expression”.

Myanmar has said the court that convicted the two Reuters journalists under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act was independent and followed due process, after international calls for the pair to be released.

FULL REPORT: Myanmar: The Invisible Boundary

Ministry of Information spokesman Myint Kyaw declined to comment on the report when reached by Reuters on Tuesday. Yangon officials have rejected claims that press freedom was shrinking under the administration of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kui.

“The report refers to the ‘instrumentalisation of the law and of the courts by the Government and the military in what constitutes a political campaign against independent journalism’,” U.N. human rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani told a Geneva briefing.

Laws on telecommunications, official secrets and import-export acts have been invoked against journalists, she said.

The group Reporters Without Borders estimates that around 20 journalists were prosecuted last year in Myanmar, Shamdasani said.

The U.N. report entitled “The Invisible Boundary – Criminal prosecutions of journalism in Myanmar”, which examined freedom of the press since Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) came to power in 2015, said it had become “impossible for journalists do to their job without fear or favour”.

SIGN THE PETITION CALLING FOR THE IMMEDIATE RELEASE OF WA LONE AND KYAW SOE OO

Foreign press clubs call for immediate release of Reuters journalists in Myanmar

Three months ago, Myanmar police invited two Reuters reporters to a restaurant in northern Yangon. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had been investigating the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men who were buried in a mass grave after being hacked to death or shot by ethnic Rakhine Buddhist villagers and soldiers.

Reuters journalists Wa Lone (L) and Kyaw Soe Oo, who are based in Myanmar, pose for a picture at the Reuters office in Yangon, Myanmar December 11, 2017. Picture taken December 11, 2017. REUTERS/Antoni Slodkowski Reuters journalists Wa Lone (L) and Kyaw Soe Oo, who are based in Myanmar, pose for a picture at the Reuters office in Yangon, Myanmar December 11, 2017. REUTERS/Antoni Slodkowski

At the dinner, police handed the pair some documents. They were arrested almost immediately afterward and later charged under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.

On the 100th day since the arrest of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, 10 foreign correspondents’ clubs throughout Asia are again calling for their immediate release. The two journalists were engaged in normal reporting activities, and had not committed any wrongdoing. All charges against them should be dropped.

“We are not doing anything wrong,” Kyaw Soe Oo told reporters after the pair were formally charged. “Please help us by uncovering the truth.”

Their trial is now underway, with a verdict possible in the coming weeks. The outcome will have repercussions for Myanmar and the entire region, where press freedom is increasingly under attack.

We call on Aung San Suu Kyi and her civilian government to act to defend press freedom as the country undertakes its transition to democracy. It is vital that Myanmar respects the beneficial role of a free and independent media and ensures that journalists are able to work without threat of retaliation.

FCC Hong kong's president Florence de Changy (left) with Geoff Crothall from the Press Freedom Committee at the Myanmar consulate on March 21. The consulate had closed early but building management promised they would hand in the 3 volumes of signatures to the consulate when it opens again. FCC Hong Kong’s president Florence de Changy (left) with Geoff Crothall from the Press Freedom Committee at the Myanmar consulate on March 21. The consulate had closed early but building management promised they would hand in the 3 volumes of signatures to the consulate when it opens again.

We also call on all those who believe in press freedom to keep up the pressure on authorities who want to silence journalists, in Myanmar and elsewhere around the globe. One easy place to start is by signing a petition for their release: goo.gl/1kPTwX

A delegation of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong walked to the Myanmar consulate on Wednesday, March 21 to hand over a petition with more than 42,000 signatures demanding the immediate release of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.

“We are not doing anything wrong,” Kyaw Soe Oo told reporters after the pair were formally charged. “Please help us by uncovering the truth.”

#FreeWaLoneKyawSoeOo

Foreign Correspondents Association of Singapore
Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China
Foreign Correspondents Club of Malaysia
Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand
Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club
National Press Club of Australia
Editorial Committee, The Society of Publishers in Asia
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of South Asia, New Delhi
The Overseas Press Club of Cambodia

Democracy Now reports on the story – watch from 5 minutes 20 seconds.

FCC Hong Kong speaks out on mounting threats to press freedom across Asia

Press freedom is under attack across Asia, creating one of the most restrictive environments for journalists in recent memory. Over the past few months, critical newspapers have been closed and reporters have been charged with crimes for simply doing their jobs. Leaders are routinely crying “fake news” to undermine stories that speak truth to power, employing a phrase made popular by the president of the United States – a country that was once one of the biggest advocates for a free press across the globe.

Reuters journalists Wa Lone (L) and Kyaw Soe Oo, who are based in Myanmar, pose for a picture at the Reuters office in Yangon, Myanmar December 11, 2017. Picture taken December 11, 2017. REUTERS/Antoni Slodkowski Reuters journalists Wa Lone (L) and Kyaw Soe Oo, who are based in Myanmar, pose for a picture at the Reuters office in Yangon, Myanmar December 11, 2017. Picture taken December 11, 2017. REUTERS/Antoni Slodkowski

What’s particularly worrying is that supposedly democratic governments are increasingly taking action to silence critical reporting. It’s no longer just China, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam that are bullying the media. Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines and Myanmar – now led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi – are also becoming hazardous for journalists.

Today in Myanmar, two journalists with the Reuters news agency who have been arrested and charged under a section of the Official Secrets Act were denied bail. They now face months in custody during pre-trial hearings on the charges which carry a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison. The FCC deplores the legal action against the pair, which will have a chilling effect on press freedom in Myanmar.

Other recent major incidents include:

– The closure of The Cambodia Daily after 25 years due to government pressure over a tax dispute
Rappler, a news organisation that undertook brave reporting about Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s deadly crackdown on drugs, had its operating license revoked because it violated the country’s restrictions on foreign ownership of domestic media

Press freedom is the core of free societies around the globe. For those who believe in keeping the powerful accountable to the public, it’s more important than ever to speak up. And for all politicians around the globe who care about democratic values, it’s essential to keep up the pressure on those who want to silence journalists.

 

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