HANOI: Myanmar government leader Aung San Suu Kyi said on Thursday the jailing of two Reuters journalists had nothing to do with freedom of expression and they can appeal against their seven-year sentences. Suu Kyi, in her first public comment on the case since the two were convicted, referred to the colonial-era law under which they were charged.
“They were not jailed because they were journalists, they were jailed because… the court has decided that they have broken the Official Secrets Act,” she said at a conference of the World Economic Forum in Hanoi.
She made her comments in response to a question from a forum moderator who asked whether she felt comfortable about the reporters being jailed.
The journalists, Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were convicted on official secrets charges on Monday last week in a landmark case that has raised questions about Myanmar’s progress towards democracy.
The two reporters, who had pleaded not guilty, were investigating the killing of 10 villagers from the Muslim Rohingya minority by the Myanmar security forces at the time of their arrest. The military later acknowledged the killings and said it punished several soldiers.
Meanwhile, the EU’s diplomatic chief on Thursday condemned Myanmar’s jailing of journalists, hours after the country’s tarnished democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi strongly defended the men’s treatment.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini repeated a call for the reporters’ immediate, unconditional release, saying they had not had a fair trial.
“Many observers saw this trial as a test of freedom of the media, democracy and the rule of law in the country. It is pretty clear that the test was failed,” Mogherini told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.
“The sentence will also intimidate other journalists who could fear undue arrest or prosecution for doing their job.”
The United Nations, human rights and press freedom groups and various governments criticised the convictions. US Vice-President Mike Pence called for their release.
But Suu Kyi questioned whether people were aware of the details of the case.
“I wonder whether very many people have actually read the summary of the judgment which had nothing to do with freedom of expression at all, it had to do with an Official Secrets Act,” she said.
“If we believe in the rule of law, they have every right to appeal the judgement and to point out why the judgment was wrong.”
Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay was not immediately available to comment on Suu Kyi’s remarks. He said last week the court was independent and followed due process.
Reuters, in response to Suu Kyi’s comments, said in a statement: “We continue to believe that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo did not violate Myanmar’s espionage law, and at no point in time were they engaged in activity to hurt their country.”
During eight months of hearings, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo testified that two policemen they had not met before handed them papers rolled up in a newspaper during a meeting at a Yangon restaurant on December 12.
Almost immediately afterwards, they said, they were bundled into a car by plainclothes officers.
On February 1, a police witness said under cross-examination that information in the documents had already been published in newspapers.
In April, a prosecution witness testified that a senior officer had ordered subordinates to plant secret documents on Wa Lone to “trap” the reporter.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said Suu Kyi was wrong when she spoke about the verdict.
“She fails to understand that real ‘rule of law’ means respect for evidence presented in court, actions brought based on clearly defined and proportionate laws, and independence of the judiciary.” — Reuters/AFP