Myanmar court refuses to dismiss charges against journalists

YANGON (AP) – A Myanmar court yesterday refused to dismiss a case against two Reuters journalists after the reporters’ lawyers insisted last week that the evidence did not support the charges.

The case against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo was strongly criticised internationally as an effort by authorities to intimidate the press, especially its coverage of Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where the military is accused of massive human rights abuses against the Rohingya minority.

The two journalists were arrested December 12, with police accusing them of violating the Official Secrets Act, a law dating from British colonial times, by acquiring “important secret papers” handed to them by two policemen who worked in Rakhine. If convicted, they could get up to 14 years in prison.

“I am not happy at all,” Kyaw Soe Oo told reporters as he walked out of the courtroom yesterday.

Wa Lone shouted out, “We journalists just did our job as we have the rights of free press in the democracy and now we are facing the charge that could probably put us in prison for 14 years.”

The two had worked on Reuters’ coverage of the crisis in Rakhine, where security forces’ response to an insurgents’ attack drove nearly 700,000 Rohingya to neighbouring Bangladesh.

The case drew international attention, with high-profile rights lawyer Amal Clooney joining the legal team representing the jailed journalists. The United States, Britain and Canada, as well as the United Nations, had called for the reporters to be freed.

Reuters journalist Wa Lone walks along with his wife Pan Ei Mon, as he is escorted by police upon arrival at his trial in Yangon, Myanmar, yesterday. – AP

The defence lawyers asked the judge last week to dismiss the charges after four months of preliminary hearings, saying testimony from prosecution witnesses did not give enough evidence to prove the pair violated the law.

“The judge said that eight more witnesses are still left to testify and our claims of baseless evidence from persecution witnesses are not yet true,” Than Zaw Aung, one of the defence lawyers, said after yesterday’s hearing.

Reuters President and Editor-in-Chief Stephen J Adler said he was disappointed with the court’s decision.

“We believe that there are solid grounds for the court to dismiss this matter and to release our journalists,” Adler said in a statement. “Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were reporting on issues in Myanmar in an independent and impartial way. They have not violated any laws in the course of their newsgathering and were simply doing their jobs. We will continue to do all we can to secure their release.”

Than Zaw Aung said the next hearing is set for April 20.