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Myanmar media repression deepens despite release of Reuters pair

Aung San Suu Kyi's government has failed to nurture greater press freedom

Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo walk to the gate at Insein Prison in Yangon on May 7 after being freed as part of a mass amnesty.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- There was widespread jubilation last week when two imprisoned Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were unexpectedly included among 6,520 prisoners released in a mass amnesty in Myanmar, but observers say the country's press situation remains deeply troubled.

"I can't wait to go my newsroom," Wa Lone told reporters when he emerged. How the two local journalists will resume their reporting careers is moot, however, with their employer declining to comment. "I'm afraid we're not doing interviews or discussing the case at this point," Jamie Austin, a Reuters public relations officer, told the Nikkei Asian Review.

"The big problem now is there are many other journalists arrested and facing trial, but none of them have the same international profile as Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo," Phil Robertson of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch told Nikkei. "The only reason these two journalists are out of prison now is the incredible international pressure mounted on Myanmar to let them go."

The Reuters pair spent 511 days in Yangon's massive Insein Prison, a relic of British colonial times. They had been arrested after police invited them to a suburban restaurant in Yangon and gave them purportedly secret state documents, which they had no time to read or disseminate. The obvious entrapment was confirmed in court by a police captain, who was himself imprisoned for violating a disciplinary code.

The two local reporters were prosecuted under the 1923 Official Secrets Act, another British relic that critics say is part of a raft laws inhibiting development of anything remotely resembling a free press.

The journalists were members of a Reuters team that investigated the killings of ten innocent men in Rakhine state during a brutal military sweep in mid-2017, resulting in some 730,000 Muslim Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh. The reporting of the massacre garnered a Pulitzer Prize for Reuters, and its veracity has not been disputed.

After losing an appeal on Apr. 23 in the Supreme Court, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo's defense team was quietly advised to desist and instead seek a pardon. That duly came from President Win Myint, himself a former political prisoner -- but did not amount to an official exoneration. Another 16,499 prisoners had been released in April following Thingyan, the Buddhist New Year. Many were very old, in poor health or drug offenders.

It has also emerged that one of the principal obstacles to their release was State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto head of government and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate. She had a major falling out over the imprisoned journalists with Bill Richardson, a former friend and ally who, as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the 1990s, lobbied the military for her release from protracted house arrest. Suu Kyi also brushed off subsequent requests from U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and others.

Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a speech at Rakhine State Investment Fair at Ngapali beach in Thandwe, Rakhine, Myanmar on Feb. 22.   © Reuters

"Because of her stubbornness and her state of denial over the abuses in Rakhine and the international criticism she received, she became the main obstacle in resolving the case," David S. Mathieson, a longtime Australian observer of Myanmar, told The New York Times. "It became a very personal case for her, publicly and privately."

The U.N. also remains critical of Suu Kyi's government. "While it is good news that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have been reunited with their families and will not have to carry out the remainder of their sentences, their convictions under the Official Secrets Act have not been withdrawn, and they should never have been prosecuted in the first place," Yanghee Lee and David Kaye, U.N. special rapporteurs on human rights in Myanmar and freedom of expression, said in a statement.

Athan, a local activist group, estimates that since the National League for Democracy won the 2015 general election, over 43 journalists have been arrested. HRW puts the figure at over 48. Others note that members of the NLD have been prominently filing complaints under repressive laws.

"Journalists continue to face reprisals, including long and unfair jail sentences, merely for doing their jobs in what is already a difficult and challenging environment," The Irrawaddy magazine said in a recent editorial. Indeed, in April, a case for online defamation was opened against Ye Ni, editor of the magazine's Burmese-language edition, for an article authorities charged was biased. Some 20 journalists were prosecuted for similar alleged transgressions in 2017.

Other attempts at free expression have also attracted official ire. Film director Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, founder of the Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival, was hauled up in and imprisoned in April for Facebook posts criticizing the 2008 constitution drawn up by the military, a charter that facilitates the continued clampdown on political life.

The same month, a troupe of five comedians were charged for inciting public mischief during Thingyan festivities by allegedly mocking the thin-skinned military. Satirical sketches are popular during the boisterous water festival, and authorities generally turn a blind eye.

Apart from embattled journalists, artists and comedians, different monitoring groups estimate that there are still between 130 and 330 political prisoners in Myanmar. The Ministry of Home Affairs routinely issues statements denying the existence of political prisoners, but possible links to armed insurgent minorities are often used to cloud what constitutes a political prisoner.

"The big question is why did the civilian administration of Aung San Suu Kyi go along with this charade?" HRW's Robertson told Nikkei. "The entire episode was designed to send a menacing message to other Burmese journalists that if they report on topics the military doesn't like, they will face a similar ordeal no matter who they work for."

Robertson regards the episode as a clear attempt to cow international news organizations, which already have very little access to a number of troubled parts of the country. "Sadly, this strategy has been successful and self-censorship -- and backing off of sensitive stories involving the military -- seem to be increasing," he said.

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