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In spite of global outcry: Myanmar journalists still in jail one year on

Ten Rohingya Muslim men with their hands bound kneel as members of the Myanmar security forces stand guard in Inn Din village September 2, 2017.
Ten Rohingya Muslim men with their hands bound kneel as members of the Myanmar security forces stand guard in Inn Din village September 2, 2017. REUTERS/File

A year ago Wednesday, two Reuters journalists were arrested in Myanmar. Authorities put them on trial under the state secrets act and sentenced them to seven years in jail. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had been investigating the extrajudicial killing of 10 Rohingya men during the military's crackdown on the stateless minority last year.


Hundreds demonstrated in Yangon to express their support for the journalists and social media was covered with the “Thumbs up” symbol that became popular during the trial of the two journalists.

“There is a huge threat to all journalists,” says Kyaw Min Swe, the executive director of the Myanmar Journalism Institute in Yangon.

"Freedom of the press has declined over the past three years" he says.

“It is worse than in the previous years. If you compare two years, much more journalists are facing trial and much more journalists are arrested."

At the time, one year ago, the guilty verdict sparked global condemnation, including from US Vice President Mike Pence.

Reuters hired prominent rights attorney Amal Clooney to assist with the case.

Time magazine Person of the Year 2018

Earlier this week, the two reporters were also featured in Time magazine's Person of the Year issue alongside other detained journalists, or journalists who were killed this year, including the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, who was allegedly murdered by Saudi security forces in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, on October 2 this year.

Despite worldwide campaigns to get them free, the two journalists remain behind bars, and an appeal against their seven year sentence is set for later this month.

Fairness of this trial in question

The judicial process which lead to the imprisonment of the pair is widely regarded as a sham and revenge.

The two journalists were reporting on the September 2017 massacre of  Rohingya muslims in Inn Din village led by Myanmar security forces.

During the trial, one police officer, a whistleblower, told the court his superior ordered a setup to entrap the reporters.

But this testimony was ignored by the judge.

Where does Aung San Su Kyi fit in?

Meanwhile, Aung San Su Kyi, Myanmar's defacto leader and arguably the country's most powerful civilian, remains silent.

After long years of house arrest she had became an icon of human rights activists and a symbol for free speech.

Her silence has disappointed the human rights community as she doesn’t live up to the status she was assigned when she was detained herself.

“We’ve seen the Birmese government coming under intense pressure over the arrest and trial and jailing of these journalists,” says Mark Farmaner, director of the Birma Campaign action group in London.

“And it really has drawn attention to the fact that under the NLD [National League for Democracy – the ruling party], freedom of expression, media freedom, has not improved, and is actually getting worse in the country."

“But it is Aung San Suu Kyi herself who is stubbornly refusing to release these journalists."

“So even though it was the military which framed these journalists and the military which wanted to press ahead with the prosecution, the civilian side of the government, headed by Aung San Suu Kyi is able to release them, and is choosing not to,” he says.

The big unknown is why Aung San Su Kyi is not speaking out on these kind of issues: she’s also been silent on army violence against the Rohingya itself, the topic of research of the two journalists, the ethnic cleansing and genocide of which the UN and human rights organizations accuse the Myanmar military.

One answer is that she grew up in a military family herself, and now does not want to compromise the hand that fed her as a child.

Another one is that she made a deal with the devil, in this case the army: when she was released from house arrest, she could play a symbolic political role, but nothing more.

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