[Myanmar] From street protests to online campaigns, support continues for jailed Reuters reporters

Two weeks following the criminal conviction of two Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, sentiments over the court’s decision remained intense.

Dozens of young activists and journalists gathered in front of the Yangon city hall, holding signs that read:

“Murdering is not a state secret.”

“Journalism is not a crime.”

Protesters, wearing white t-shirts printed with photos of the two reporters, invariably condemned the seven-year jail sentence handed down on Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, and demanding their release. The people have a right to know, they cried in unison.

In a clear demonstration of the emotions gripping them, they released black balloons into the air similarly bearing images of the reporters’ faces.

Before the protest ended, poet and activist Maung Saung Kha gave a short performance dramatizing the media situation in Myanmar today. He put on a green military jacket over the fawn-colored traditional Burmese shirt usually worn by members of the National League for Democracy. Then he rolled up a state-owned newspaper and pretended to hit the journalists who joined the demonstration.

“Only an independent media can expose how the elected government works for the citizens,” said Thar Lun Zaung Htet, a member of the Myanmar Press Council and one of the organizers of the protest.

“Real information comes from the independent media, not from the state-owned media,” he stressed.

A month since the conclusion of the trial, expressions of solidarity with, and campaigns for the release of, the two Reuters reporters continue. Khit Thit, an online news agency, has decided to boycott coverage of the by-election in November.

Athan (which means “the voice” in English), an independent organization advocating for freedom of expression, started a video and social media campaigns for the Reuters reporters.

The short video explained: “Although they obtained the information in accordance with journalism ethics, the authorities framed and detained them. It (court decision) needs to be reviewed and they should be released as soon as possible.”

The video was posted on Facebook using the “#FreeWaLoneKyawSoeOo” hashtag and as part of the campaign. In a similar demonstration of protest, some netizens changed their Facebook profile pictures into photos of the two journalists. Others have started their own petitions in support of the two convicted reporters.

Prior to their arrest in December, the two Reuters reporters were investigating the massacre of 10 villagers from the Bengali (internationally known as Rohingya) community by the Myanmar security forces in the northern Rakhine state.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were detained on the night of 12 December 2017 after being handed some documents by police officers. They were accused and arrested for violating Section 3.1 (c) of the Official Secrets Act.

After the court meted out its decision on 3 September 2018 decision, with the two still behind bars while awaiting the court’s decision, defense lawyer U Khin Maung Zaw said: “Today’s verdict is very disappointing. It’s bad for our country. It’s bad for democracy. It’s bad for the rule of law. And it’s bad for freedom of expression.”

Protests have escalated since the two Reuters reporters were found guilty of breaching the colonial-era Official Secrets Act by the Yangon Northern District court.

Independent media outlets, human rights groups, and activists, as well as concerned governments such as those of the United States of America and the United Kingdom, condemned the conviction, widely seen in international fora as a landmark case for press freedom. In Myanmar, the reactions from the media community and concerned individuals were no less intense.

Yet, along with these incidents, comments and reactions on social media were in stark contrast to the global condemnation of the verdict.

“Wa Lone and his partner are state traitors.”

They have “(led) the nation into trouble.”

“(They) should (have been given a) death sentence.”

These were just some of the indignant and malicious posts on social networks that were used to describe the two reporters.

One Facebook user reacted to a Radio Free Asia (RFA) video interview with former minister of information U Ye Htut, who said the lawsuit against the journalists was wrong and needed to be re-adjudicated.

The (seven-year) verdict should have been 20 years or life-sentence in prison, said the former.

Similar comments reverberated across social media.

“It should have been (a) death-sentence. There are a lot of people (who are) selling the State (and they) should be arrested.”

“Citizens want to slap their faces with slippers.”

“State traitors should be exiled.”

It appeared that there were more online posts condemning the two journalists and only a few who stood with them. Yet when checked, Facebook accounts making indignant comments against the Reuters reporters had fake profile pictures and looked bogus.

Fueling the fire on social networks was the remark of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, currently under pressure to address the raging Rakhine issue, during the World Economic Forum in Hanoi, Vietnam in September.

“They were not jailed because they were journalists, they were jailed because … the court has decided that they have broken the Official Secrets Act,” she said.

Eighty-three groups including members of local civil society, student unions, and media organizations have called on the government, military, and authorities to free the pair and protect media freedom.

The 7 Day newspaper, which has one of the biggest circulations in Myanmar, published a black front page the day after the verdict. Myanmar’s first in-depth and investigative magazine, called Maw Kun, did a similar thing to signify its condemnation of the conviction.

“The arrest and verdict of the two journalists prove that the judicial structure of Myanmar is ruined,” said Shar Yamone, one of the activists who is pushing for the journalists’ release.

Protest actions were not confined to Yangon, the former capital of Myanmar, but were found also in Mandalay and Nay Pyi Taw, the current capital and seat of the government. The Myanmar Press Council, one of the biggest media organizations in the country, issued a statement describing their grief on the continued imprisonment of the Reuters reporters.

Hanthawadi U Win Tin Foundation called the journalists “political prisoners.”

The wives of the Reuters reporters and their defense lawyers held a press conference on 4 September 2018. Wa Lone has a two-month-old daughter and Kyaw Soe Oo has 3-year-old daughter. Their families wish that they come back home soon.

In an interview last October 13, Wa Lone’s wife Ma Pan Ei Mon said that their two-month-old daughter Angel had not seen her father.

The two had been languishing in prison for nearly a year even before he and his companion were sentenced. “We want to reunite our family,” she said.

 

Text and photos by:

Shwe Paw Mya Tin is a young journalist, who holds a bachelor’s degree (B.A.) in journalism and also an alumna of the Myanmar Journalism Institute. She started her journalism career in 2015 and has previously worked as an intern at The Voice daily newspaper, Democratic Voice of Burma, Teen Radio, Mandalay FM, and Myanmar Times Daily newspaper. She is currently working as a photojournalist at the Myanmar Pressphoto Agency.

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