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Myanmar frees Reuters journalists, but fails to own up to violating human rights and press freedom

Wa Lone (33) and Kyaw Soe Oo (29), two Reuters journalists jailed in Myanmar after they were convicted of breaking the Official Secrets Act, walked free from prison on Tuesday. The journalists spent over 500 days in prison.

Before their arrest in December 2017, they had been working on an investigation into the killing of ten Rohingya Muslims, including boys, by security forces and Buddhist civilians in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State during an army crackdown that began in August 2017. The report the two men authored, featuring testimony from perpetrators, witnesses and families of the victims, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in May, adding to a number of accolades received by the pair for their journalism.

But the release of the journalists by Myanmar is not really an acknowledgement on part of the government of the injustice meted out to them.

 Myanmar frees Reuters journalists, but fails to own up to violating human rights and press freedom

Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo walk free outside Insein prison in Yangon, Myanmar. Reuters

After all, the two journalists were released under a presidential amnesty for 6,520 prisoners. President Win Myint pardoned thousands of other prisoners in mass amnesties since last month. It is customary in Myanmar for authorities to free prisoners across the country around the time of the traditional New Year, which began on 17 April.

That the conviction of the two journalists was gross injustice has been widely accepted and is also corroborated by evidence. As The Indian Express reports, the two journalists had "two rolled-up pieces of paper" shoved into their hands by a police officer shortly before they were arrested outside a restaurant in Yangon. A police witness has also confirmed this.

A look into the incident the two journalists were investigating also shows that Myanmar has failed when it comes to guaranteeing its people their fundamental rights in a democracy.

The killings in the coastal village of Inn Din marked another bloody episode in the ethnic violence sweeping northern Rakhine State, on Myanmar’s western fringe. Nearly 6,90,000 Rohingya Muslims fled their villages and crossed the border into Bangladesh since August. None of Inn Din’s 6,000 Rohingya remained in the village as of October 2018.

The Rohingya accuse the army of arson, rape and killings aimed at snuffing them out in this mainly Buddhist nation of 53 million. The United Nations said the army may have committed genocide; the United States has called the action ethnic cleansing. Myanmar says its “clearance operation” is a legitimate response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents.

Moreover, the two Reuters journalists may have been released but there are others still facing unfair charges in the country.

As Human Rights Watch pointed out, merely two days before the release of the Reuters journalists, the police summoned two journalists from Development Media Group (DMG) based in Rakhine State for questioning. The intelligence branch of the Home Ministry filed a complaint against DMG's group editor for allegedly promoting "an unlawful association" through DMG's news articles.

Even though it is still not clear what the complaint is exactly based on, it is known that DMG reported extensively on the violence in Rakhine State between an ethnic armed group and the Myanmar military.

Since the Aung San Suu Kyi government came to power in Myanmar, criminal charges have been made against at least 47 reporters.

Human Rights Watch has also said that authorities in Myanmar should independently probe the killing of at least six villagers who had been detailed by the military in Rakhine State on 2 May.

Furthermore, on 10 April, the military raided the village of Let Kar in Mrauk U township, after which 27 people were detained for questioning regarding alleged links to the Arakan Army, the ethnic armed group which the Myanmar military is fighting against in Rakhine State.

With inputs from Reuters

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Updated Date: May 08, 2019 22:12:24 IST