Special Briefing: What Myanmar’s Jailing of Journalists Means for Press Freedom

Myanmar journalist Wa Lone (C) is escorted by police after being sentenced by a court to jail in Yangon on September 3, 2018. - Two Reuters journalists were jailed on September 3 for seven years for breaching Myanmar's official secrets act during their reporting of the Rohingya crisis, a judge said, a case that has drawn outrage as an attack on media freedom.

Source YE AUNG THU/AFP/Getty

Why you should care

Because freedom of the press is under fire in many areas across the world.

This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.


What happened? A court in Myanmar sentenced two Burmese journalists from Reuters news agency to seven years in prison for illegal possession of official documents. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had been investigating the killing of 10 Rohingya men whose bodies were found in a mass grave. The journalists pleaded not guilty, claiming they were framed by police.

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Supporters of detained Myanmar journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo march during a rally in Yangon demanding their release on September 1, 2018.

Source Getty

Why does it matter? The ruling, which has sparked an international outcry, comes just a week after U.N. investigators said Myanmar’s top generals should be tried for genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority. The journalists’ investigative reporting, published in February, put them at odds with this Buddhist-majority nation and its military leaders, who were responsible for a savage campaign and mass killings that forced some 700,000 Rohingya to flee their homes for Bangladesh.



The charges. The judge in the case, U Ye Lwin, found the reporters guilty of possessing confidential government documents in breach of the country’s Official Secrets Act. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo say they came into possession of those documents when they were handed them without explanation by a police corporal they had agreed to meet for dinner at his request. Despite testimony from one police official that higher-ups had ordered the documents be planted on the journalists, the judge ruled that they intended to harm the country by sharing the confidential material. “It cannot be said that they were doing normal journalistic work,” he said in announcing the verdict. 

State of decline. The prosecutions dealt a further blow to press freedom in Myanmar, leaving many afraid that authorities will use the courts to intimidate other journalists. Globally, media freedom is reported to be at its lowest level in at least 10 years. One study found that 259 journalists were jailed in 2016, and 79 killed. Media freedom groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists attribute the situation not just to overzealous authoritarian regimes but also to the “fake news” rhetoric propagated by U.S. President Donald Trump and other world leaders who have grown increasingly hostile to the press in their respective countries.

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Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi arrives in Singapore to deliver a lecture on her country’s transition.

Source Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty

Deafening silence. Observers see the jailing of journalists as a failed test for real democracy in Myanmar, and for de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Once seen as a champion for freedom of speech and association, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate has remained silent on the fate of the journalists. A U.N. report previously criticized Suu Kyi for not using her widespread popularity to stop violence against the Rohingya. Meanwhile, her defenders say she is up against strong pressure from the military and is walking a fine line in a bid to retain popular support. 

A hidden massacre. Reporting on the Rohingya crisis from the Myanmar side has been notoriously difficult, with local journalists regularly facing harassment and intimidation by authorities. Although strict censorship laws were relaxed after the country’s transition to semi-democracy in 2012, it didn’t provide the sprint toward press freedom some had hoped for. After reporting on mass rapes in Rakhine, the country’s most popular English newspaper, The Myanmar Times, fired its lead investigative journalist following an apparent scolding by the state. 


Dangerous News: How Two Young Reporters Shook Myanmar, by Tom Lasseter in Reuters

“To dignitaries in Western capitals, from Pope Francis to former U.S. President Bill Clinton, their incarceration would become a test of press freedom in Myanmar, and how far the country has traveled toward a more open society.” 

The Global Slump in Press Freedom, in The Economist

“In normal times, America would denounce the jailing of journalists and muzzling of newspapers. But given Mr Trump’s predilections, the position of global free-press champion is vacant.”


World Reacts to Sentencing of Reuters Journalists in Myanmar 

“This is directly challenging the democracy and media freedom of our country.” 

Watch on Al-Jazeera on YouTube:

Reuters Honors Myanmar Journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo With the Baron Award

“I’ve worked with Wa Lone on several stories and I’ve seen up close how he works. He’s very dogged as all good reporters are. He’s very straightforward and honest and has a very strong sense of right and wrong.” 

Watch on Reuters on YouTube:


A very legal distinction. A U.S. State Department investigation involving 1,024 interviews of Rohingya from refugee camps in Bangladesh drew similar conclusions to a U.N. report suggesting “genocidal intent.” But U.S. government representatives like U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley still haven’t used the word “genocide,” and a State Department spokesperson cautioned that acknowledging the term could legally require the U.S. to take stronger punitive measures against Myanmar.

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