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Judge denies motion to have Reuters journalists’ case dismissed

Detained Reuters journalist Wa Lone talks to media while being escorted by police after a court hearing in Yangon on 11 April 2018. (Photo: Reuters)

Yangon’s Northern District Court has rejected a motion to dismiss the case brought against two Reuters journalists who are facing charges under the Official Secrets Act after they were arrested in December, allegedly in possession of sensitive government documents.

Judge Ye Lwin said Wednesday that eight witnesses out of 25 in total that the prosecution has lined up had yet to testify, and that the court would hear the full slate before handing down a ruling in the case.

The two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were detained on the outskirts of Yangon on 12 December after dining with a pair of police officers in Mingalardon Township. If found guilty, the defendants could be imprisoned for up to 14 years under the Official Secrets Act.

A lawyer for the defence, Khin Maung Zaw, argued at a previous hearing that his clients did not violate the colonial-era Officials Secrets Act, adding that the prosecution had not offered sufficient evidence to the contrary as the trial has seen numerous witnesses called to testify over the past three months.

At that same prior hearing, lead prosecutor Kyaw Min Aung countered that the defendants had been found in possession of secret government documents, that by obtaining them the journalists posed a threat to state security and the national interest, and that as such the defence’s motion for a dismissal should be rejected.

Much attention in the case has focussed on the London-based news wire’s coverage of northern Rakhine State, where media access has been severely restricted amid damaging allegations levelled against Burmese security forces — accused by the UN of ethnically cleansing the Muslim Rohingya population there.

As the accusations have piled up, the military and government have pushed back forcefully, with a particular focus on discrediting international media outlets’ reporting on the situation. Reuters has been at the forefront of that coverage, and in February Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s work as part of the organisation’s Burma reporting team was published; an investigative exposé detailing security forces’ massacre of Rohingya in the Rakhine State village of Inn Din.

Wa Lone’s wife Pan Ei Mon said despite her husband urging her not to expect what would have been a dramatic court decision on Wednesday to release him and his colleague from custody, she had been optimistic.

“I had much hope for today’s hearing,” she said.

Khin Maung Zaw said the court, at the next hearing on 20 April, is scheduled to hear testimony from two police officers, Deputy Major Moe Yan Naing and Sergeant Khin Maung Lin, whom state media has previously identified as having also been arrested in connection with the Reuters journalists’ case.

Condemnation of Wednesday’s ruling by the presiding magistrate Ye Lwin came predictably from Reuters, which has been a vocal supporter of its local reporters as the case has proceeded.

“We are deeply disappointed with the court’s decision,” said Stephen J. Adler, Reuters’ president and editor-in-chief. “We believe that there are solid grounds for the court to dismiss this matter and to release our journalists. 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.”

The US Embassy in Yangon released a statement echoing that sentiment, and adding, “While the conviction announced yesterday of the soldiers responsible for the Inn Din massacre was an encouraging sign, it merely underscores that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who sought to expose that crime, should be free.‎ We renew our call for their immediate release.”

The embassy was referring to news that seven military personnel were sentenced this week to 10 years in prison for their role in the Inn Din killings.