Burma’s top court on Tuesday rejected the final appeal of two Reuters reporters sentenced to seven years in jail for breaking the Official Secrets Act while reporting on atrocities committed by the country’s army against Rohingya Muslims.
Wa Lone, 33, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 29, have already spent more than 16 months behind bars. Their conviction has drawn condemnation from human rights groups, the British and other foreign governments and has raised serious questions about Burma’s justice system and transition to democracy.
“They were sentenced for seven years and this decision stands, and the appeal is rejected,” Soe Naing, the Supreme Court Justice told the court in the capital, Naypyitaw, shattering the hopes of the men’s families and friends.
The two reporters have spent more than 16 months in detention since they were arrested in December 2017 while working on an investigation into the extrajudicial murder of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys at the village of Inn Din in northern Rakhine State.
Seven Burmese soldiers have since been sentenced to ten years of hard labour for their role in the murders.
However, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were convicted of violating the country’s colonial-era secrets law after a lengthy trail in which a key prosecution witness admitted that their arrests were a setup.
A policeman told a lower court last year that officers had planted secret documents on the two reporters.
"Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo did not commit any crime, nor was there any proof that they did. Instead, they were victims of a police set-up to silence their truthful reporting. We will continue to do all we can to free them as soon as possible,” said Gail Gove, Reuters chief counsel following the verdict.
The two reporters have won multiple high-profile awards, including a prestigious Pulitzer for their reporting on the massacre, which highlighted the merciless actions of the military during a 2017 crackdown on the Rohingya that prompted more than 700,000 to flee their homes.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch said the case was part of a "pernicious campaign" against freedom of expression that was spreading rapidly in Burma.
"Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo should never have been arrested, much less prosecuted, for doing their jobs as journalists. That they are still in prison shows just how wrong Myanmar's democracy under Aung San Suu Kyi is going," he said.
"Sadly when it comes to media freedom, both Myanmar's military and the civilian government seem equally determined to extinguish any ability to question their misrule and rights violations."
Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International's regional director for East and Southeast Asia, called the ruling a "dark day for press freedom" in Burma and warned that it was not an isolated case.
"In recent weeks, we have seen a disturbing surge in the number of people being arrested on politically motivated charges, most of them for criticism of the military," he said.
Jeremy Hunt, the British foreign secretary, vowed to champion their cause after the journalists’ conviction last September.
"Imprisoning journalists who write about inconvenient truths is an unconscionable blow to press freedom, and indeed everyone's freedom,” he said.