NGOs Urge Myanmar to Free Reuters Reporters, Investigate Their Case

More than 160 nongovernmental organizations on Thursday urged Myanmar’s government to immediately release two Reuters journalists and set up a committee to investigate their case, following claims that the pair had been set up by police.

In an open letter to President Win Myint, the 163 NGOs said authorities had no right to arrest reporters Thet Oo Maung, also known as Wa Lone, and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were taken into custody while investigating the murders of Rohingya Muslims by Myanmar’s military during a crackdown in Rakhine state.

Police arrested the pair of reporters on Dec. 12 on the outskirts of Yangon shortly after they had dinner with two police officers who gave them documents related to the crackdown. They were formally charged on Jan. 10 with obtaining state secrets and face up to 14 years in prison if found guilty.

“We are calling for the immediate release of the detainees,” said Thursday’s letter, signed by groups including Community Response Action Group (COMREG), the Burmese Women’s Union (BWU), Generation Wave, and the Association of Human Rights Defenders and Promoters (HRDP).

COMREG spokesperson Thatoe also called on the president to launch a probe into their case, lest “trust in the judicial system … be damaged.” He noted that Win Myint had once pledged to make the country’s court system “more just, fair, and free from bias.”

The government should ensure that the reporters’ families receive social security and that their rights are protected while they are detained, Thatoe said, adding that the letter’s signatories would “closely monitor” the outcome of their case and would “increase our action if necessary.”

Thursday’s letter also called on Win Myint to release Captain Moe Yan Naing, who was arrested in December after being identified as one of two policemen allegedly involved in the case and faces up to two years in jail and dismissal on police misconduct charges.

A day after Moe Yan Naing’s April 20 testimony in Yangon’s Northern District Court that Police Brigadier General Tin Ko Ko ordered officers to set up the two reporters, authorities ordered his wife and three children to move out of a police housing complex. He has been denied visits from family members.

The appeal for the release of the two Reuters reporters came a day after New York-based Asia Society announced that they had been named finalists for its 2018 Osborn Elliot Prize for Excellence in Journalism on Asia, citing the pair’s coverage of the anti-Rohingya violence which it called “courageous and risk-taking in its real-time chronicling of mass atrocities.”

Press freedom ranking

It also came a day after Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said Myanmar dropped six places to 137th out of 180 nations in its 2018 World Press Freedom Index, compared to its ranking a year ago.

Following a four-point drop from 128th to 131st noted in last year’s report, which cited frequent self-censorship in reporting on government figures and the country’s powerful military, RSF knocked Myanmar down further this year, saying its government had “lost all credibility in regards to its obligation to defend the role of the media in a functioning democracy.”

On Thursday, local reporters told RFA’s Myanmar Service that a lack of access to information is one of the greatest difficulties they face in the country while trying to do their jobs.

“According to the media law that was released under former President Thein Sein [2011-2016], it was clearly written that journalists must have the right to information, and that ministry spokespersons must answer reporters’ questions for the sake of the country and its citizens,” Zaw Thet Htway of the Myanmar Press Union said.

“In reality, very few government officials answer questions from the media. In particular, the Home Affairs Ministry, the military and the police force don’t take phone or in-person interviews. It is very difficult to get them to speak, and I think that is why Myanmar’s ranking in the press freedom index dropped.”

Kyaw Min Swe, chief editor of the Voice Weekly newspaper, said that the government’s attitude toward the media has “changed,” noting that an increasing number of journalists have been arrested and convicted since it took power in 2016 under the de facto leadership of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

“Access to information is still difficult and state-owned media remains strong—they get more information, earlier, about everything the government and military does,” he said.

“It is unfair not only in terms of right to information, but also for business. It also hurts press freedom indirectly. Myanmar dropped to 137th from 131st because of these points, I think.”

In this year’s report, RSF noted that Myanmar’s “worst violations took place after the start of the Rohingya crisis in August 2017,” when nearly 700,000 refugees were forced to flee violence in Rakhine state to southeastern Bangladesh.

“The international community now knows that ‘elements of genocide’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’ occurred, to use the U.N.’s terms. But proper reporting on this tragedy from within Myanmar is still impossible because the military continue to deny access.”

Reported by Kyaw Zaw Win and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.