Two journalists of international news agency Reuters were sentenced to seven years in prison by a Myanmar court on Monday for violating the country’s state secrets law while reporting on the massacre of Rohingya Muslims.
Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28 -- who were arrested last year in December and were lodged in prison since then -- were convicted by Yangon northern district judge for violating British-era Official Secrets Act.
The judge said the journalists ‘collected and obtained confidential documents’.
‘The defendants ... have breached Official Secrets Act section 3.1.c, and are sentenced to seven years,’ the judge said, adding that the time served since they were detained in December would be taken into account.
The duo can challenge the decision in the regional court and further in the Supreme Court.
The two reporters had pleaded not guilty and told the court that the police planted documents on them in the course of their work in reporting on violence-hit Rakhine state.
They said they were arrested after being invited to dinner by police in Yangon who handed them documents.
As they left the restaurant, the duo was detained for possessing classified material.
One police witness confirmed the story, testifying that the restaurant meeting was a set-up to ‘entrap the journalists to block or punish them for their reporting of a mass killing of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine’.
The case has sparked an outcry among the international community as an attempt to muzzle reporting on last year’s crackdown by Myanmar’s security forces on the Rohingya minority.
Press freedom advocates, the United Nations, the European Union and countries including the United States, Canada and Australia had called for the journalists’ acquittal.
Reuters editor-in-chief Stephen J Adler, in a statement, hinted at considering legal options to challenge the conviction of the duo.
‘Today is a sad day for Myanmar, Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, and the press everywhere.
‘We will not wait while Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo suffer this injustice and will evaluate how to proceed in the coming days, including whether to seek relief in an international forum,’ Adler said.
Coming out of the courtroom, a handcuffed Wa Lone gave a defiant ‘thumbs up’ to reporters and others gathered outside, saying ‘we will face it (the verdict) with stability and courage’.
Lone shook hands with supporters, telling them not to worry.
“We know what we did. We know we did nothing wrong. I have no fear. I believe in justice, democracy and freedom,” he said.
Kyaw Soe Oo also said the reporters had committed no crime and that they would maintain their fight for press freedom.
Monday’s ruling comes a week after a UN report accused Myanmar’s army chief of heading up a campaign of ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ against the Rohingya.
It also strongly criticised de facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi for failing to use moral authority to stand up for the stateless minority.
Army-led ‘clearance operations’ drove 7,00,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh, carrying with them widespread accounts of atrocities -- rape, murder and arson -- by Myanmar security forces.