Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo
Status: On Trial
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo (also known as Moe Aung), both Myanmar reporters for the Reuters news agency, were arrested on December 12, 2017, and held incommunicado for several weeks. The two journalists were charged on January 10, 2018, with violating the Official Secrets Act, a rarely invoked law created during the British colonial period that punishes taking images or obtaining documents that might be or are intended to be “useful to an enemy.” Prosecutors have charged the journalists with obtaining important and secret state documents relating to the crisis in Rakhine State, from which some 680,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled since August 2017. Prior to their arrest, the journalists had been investigating the existence of a mass grave in the village of Inn Din.
If convicted, the journalists face up to 14 years in prison. Both journalists are currently being held at Insein Prison in Yangon, an institution notorious for its use of torture and the calculated mistreatment of its prisoners during the years of military rule. Their trial began on January 23, 2018, and during a court hearing on February 1, 2018, they were denied a request for bail. Since then, there have been weekly hearings to hear evidence in the case. Recent testimony brought forward by Police Captain Moe Yan Naing on April 20 reveals that the police had arranged a “set up” to arrest the journalists. In light of his testimony, Moe Yan Naing was declared a “hostile witness” by the lead prosecutor. The pre-trial hearings ended on July 9, when the presiding judge announced that their case would move forward to a full trial starting on July 16.
On February 13, 2018, PEN America announced that it would honor Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo with the 2018 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, recognizing their struggle in the face of adversity for the right to freedom of expression. The award was presented at PEN’s annual gala on May 22. Many countries, including the U.S., Canada, and several European governments, in addition to top UN and EU officials, are calling for the release of the two reporters.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested in Yangon on the evening of December 12, 2017, ostensibly for violating the 1923 Official Secrets Act by illegally obtaining information related to a military campaign in Rakhine State by the Myanmar army—which human rights groups and the United Nations claim amounts to ethnic cleansing—with the intention of sharing it with the foreign media.
Their investigative reporting for Reuters on mass atrocity crimes in Rakhine State made Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo targets. In a statement made on January 10, 2018, the Myanmar military admitted that security forces and villagers captured and killed 10 “Bengali terrorists” and buried them in a mass grave in the village of Inn Din in Maungdaw Township, the same grave that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had been investigating. Through their reporting, they may have helped pressure the army into admitting the existence of a mass grave holding the bodies of 10 Rohingya victims. Their arrest comes after a media blackout in Rakhine State (as part of which international journalists have been forbidden from the area) and a worsening environment for media freedom and free expression nationwide in Myanmar.
Wa Lone joined Reuters in July 2016 and quickly established an esteemed reputation with his reporting on sensitive subjects, including land seizures by the powerful military, the murder of well-known politician Ko Ni, and killings by soldiers in the northeast of Myanmar. In September 2017, Kyaw Soe Oo joined Reuters and along with Wa Lone reported on the army’s repressive tactics after the militant attacks on security forces in Rakhine State on August 25, 2017.
Both Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are not only journalists but also writers. Before becoming a journalist, Kyaw Soe Oo composed poetry, while Wa Lone is the author of a children’s book called The Gardener, a story written in both Myanmar and English that relates the importance of protecting the environment. The Gardener is one of a series published by the Third Story Project, a charitable foundation founded by Wa Lone that creates and publishes stories that aim to promote tolerance and harmony between Myanmar’s different ethnic groups.
Government officials from all over the world, including the United States, Britain, and Canada, in addition to UN officials, have called for the release of the journalists. PEN America and other international and Myanmar nongovernmental human rights and journalistic organizations have called the arrest an attack on free expression and freedom of the press.
July 2, 2018: The prosecution and defense present their closing arguments in the case.
June 18, 2018: Police Major Tin Win Maung, a police witness in the case against two Reuters reporters, is called “unreliable” by the reporters’ lawyer as he violated police code by obtaining previous witness testimony.
June 11, 2018: Defense lawyers suggest that the police interrogations forced two Reuters reporters to undergo tactics such as sleep deprivation and repeated accusations that they were “spies.” Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo confirm details of their treatment after the hearing, stating they had been questioned every two hours for approximately three days after their arrests by different officers, who repeatedly asked if they were “spies.”
June 5, 2018: The defense lawyers state that the documents Myanmar police found on the phones of two Reuters reporters, who have been accused of possessing state secrets, were publicly available prior to their arrest. Judge Ye Lwin accepted copies of newspaper articles as evidence, which the defense says demonstrated that the information in the documents was “already known by the public.” Major Aung Kyaw San, a police IT expert, states in court he was unaware of the fact that the information found on documents had been published in both state and local newspapers because he does not read newspapers.
May 29, 2018: Khin Maung Zaw, a defense lawyer, says despite the confiscation of the reporters’ phones, at least one of the seized phones was still in use. This phone usage indicates that the evidence Myanmar police obtained from the phones of two Reuters reporters could be “tainted.”
May 22, 2018: Printed copies of documents that the police obtained from the reporters’ phones are accepted as evidence in the court by Judge Ye Lwin. Allegedly, the documents include confidential government letters and tourism development of an island off the coast of Myanmar. Defense lawyer Than Zaw Aung argues the documents should not be admitted as evidence as it unclear who has had access to the phones and raises the question of whether the extraction of the files followed proper procedure.
May 16, 2018: Police Lance Corporal Naing Lin tells the court that though he met the journalists, he did not give the journalists any documents. Naing Lin’s testimony contradicts Police Captain Moe Yan Naing’s who claims that Naing Lin had in fact set up the two journalists. Naing Lin claims that he “went and met with Wa Lone because he called me and requested a meeting. I didn’t call Wa Lone and ask him to come meet me.” However, on the day the two reporters were arrested, defense lawyer Than Zaw Aung says phone records show Naing Lin calling Wa Lone in the afternoon and the evening.
May 9, 2018: Police Captain Moe Yan Naing, who is now serving a prison sentence, testifies before the court detailing the actions taken by the police to frame the two journalists. Moe Yan Naing claims subordinate officers were ordered to give Wa Lone “secret” documents for a sting operation. Moe Yan Naing also states Police Brigadier General Tin Ko Ko, the leading officer in the investigation into Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, threatened the police officers involved in the investigation with detention if they did not “get Wa Lone.”
Additionally, the day after Moe Yan Naing’s testimony, Moe Yan Naing’s wife, Tu Tu, and his children are evicted from police housing in Naypyitaw.
May 2, 2018: Judge Ye Lwin declares that Police Captain Moe Yan Naing’s testimony, regarding the framing of two Reuters reporters, was credible. Since Moe Yan Naing was a member of the police force, Judge Ye Lwin found that it was “not suitable to consider him as an unreliable witness” as the prosecution had earlier claimed.
April 20, 2018: Police Captain Moe Yan Naing describes the lead up to the arrest of the two Reuters journalists and says the police had arranged a “set up.” Lead prosecutor Kyaw Min Aung files a motion to declare him a “hostile witness.” The trial is adjourned until April 25.
Moe Yan Naing, who is currently facing charges for violating the Police Disciplinary Act, tells the court that he, along with other officers from Battalion 8, had been interrogated about his interaction with Wa Lone in November when the journalist interviewed him about police activities in Rakhine State. Moe Yan Naing gives evidence that the police officer who led the interrogation, Brigadier General Tin Ko Ko, ordered police Lance Corporal Naing Lin to set up a meeting with Wa Lone that night, give him “secret documents from Battalion 8,” and then “entrap him and arrest him.” According to Moe Yan Naing, Tin Ko Ko threatened the other officers and told them that if they didn’t arrest Wa Lone they themselves would be arrested.
March 28, 2018: Defense lawyer Khin Maung Zaw asks the court to dismiss the case, arguing that there is insufficient evidence to support charges against them. The court agrees to hear arguments from prosecutors and defense lawyers on the motion to dismiss on April 4. After the hearing, Khin Maung Zaw tells reporters that there isn’t any legally sufficient evidence that can be used against the pair and that there have been discrepancies in the testimony of some witnesses.
During a break in the court proceedings, Wa Lone urges Myanmar’s new president Win Myint to ensure freedom for the media.
March 21, 2018: Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo appear in court for the 11th time, marking 100 days since their initial arrest.
March 14, 2018: The two Reuters journalists appear in court for the 10th time. International spectators urge Myanmar not to continue with the legal proceedings against the journalists. The Danish Embassy in Yangon said that the pair should be “thanked and not punished” for their reporting on Rakhine State.
March 7, 2018: A police chief tells the court that the night after the journalists were arrested, police searched Wa Lone’s home for material “related to news.” Before the court hearing, a doctor examines and collects blood samples from the journalists, after their lawyer expresses concern that their health had worsened while in prison.
February 28, 2018: A case witness tells the court that while he was testifying he wrote notes down on his hand about where he saw the journalists first arrested, in order to jog his memory. The debate is whether they were arrested immediately after an arranged meeting with the police or at a traffic checkpoint.
February 14, 2018: One of the police officers who detained the reporters tells the court that he was not familiar with police procedures for recording arrests.
February 11, 2018: Myanmar says actions will be taken against members of its security forces in relation to the murders, but it says it is not related to the Reuters report.
February 8, 2018: Reuters publishes the investigation that the two journalists had been reporting on before they were arrested. It details how the Myanmar security forces and local Rakhine Buddhists were involved in the murder of 10 Rohingya Muslim men who were buried in a mass grave located in Rakhine State.
February 1, 2018: In a courtroom packed with journalists and diplomats, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are refused bail in spite of a police witness who claims under cross-examination that information contained in the documents the journalists were holding when they were arrested had already been published in public newspaper reports.
January 23, 2018: As the trial commences, Police Lieutenant Colonel Yu Naing tells the court that the journalists were arrested after they were found walking along a road carrying four official documents including a list of forces and weapons belonging to a police corps in the Maungdaw district of Rakhine State. According to Yu Naing, they are also found in possession of a report on an attack by Rohingya rebels on a police station, a drawing of a map revealing the station, and a copy of a report on the status of Rohingya villages after the military crackdown. After the hearing, defense lawyer Khin Maung Zaw tells reporters that Yu Naing could not provide any evidence that the journalists were acting for the enemy.
During the hearing, Yu Naing also tells the court that one hour after the two journalists were arrested, he requested permission from President Htin Kyaw’s office to proceed with the investigation into whether the journalists had violated the Official Secrets Act. The permission from the president’s office came the following day, December 13, 2017. Defense lawyer Khin Maung Zaw says that the quick speed at which permission was granted was unusual, and normally such authorizations would be requested about a week into the case and would be delivered by a lower status minister as opposed to the president. At the end of the hearing, the prosecution objects to the request for bail for the second time and sets the next hearing date for February 1, 2018.
January 10, 2018: In a brief court appearance, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are formally charged with violating the 1923 Official Secrets Act under Section 3.1 (c), which includes entering prohibited places, taking pictures, or acquiring secret official documents that “might be or is intended to be, directly or indirectly, useful to an enemy.” Zaw Aung, a lawyer for the journalists, requests that they be immediately released on bail, but the judge refuses and says the motion will be reviewed at the next hearing on January 23, 2018.
Myanmar’s military claims its soldiers murdered 10 captured Rohingya Muslim men during insurgent attacks in early September after Buddhist villagers forced the men into a mass grave that they had dug.
December 28, 2017: The journalists’ families say that the duo told them they were arrested almost immediately after being given rolled up papers by the police who they met for the first time the night they were arrested.
December 27, 2017: Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo appear in court after being held incommunicado for two weeks at an unrevealed location without any contact with their family or lawyers. The two journalists are allowed to meet with family members and lawyers for the first time since their arrest. At their December 27 appearance, the case is adjourned for another two weeks.
December 17, 2017: Myint Swe, the army-appointed vice president acting on behalf of Myanmar’s civilian president Htin Kyaw, authorizes the police to move forward with a case against the Reuters journalists.
December 13, 2017: The Myanmar government claims that the two journalists face charges under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act for obtaining important secret papers. If convicted the reporters face up to 14 years in prison.
December 12, 2017: Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are arrested in Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar after being invited to dinner with two police officers. According to the journalists, they were arrested almost immediately after they were given documents by Sergeant Naing Lin and an unidentified individual, after Naing Lin invited them to dinner at a restaurant near the Battalion 8 compound north of Yangon. The journalists did not read the documents as the policemen told them to review the documents at their homes. After dinner, the Reuters journalists are arrested.
Upon being seized, Wa Lone texts, “I have been arrest,” to Reuters Myanmar Bureau Chief Antoni Slodkowski. Soon thereafter, Wa Lone’s phone is turned off. Over the next 24 hours, Reuters colleagues in Yangon file a missing persons report, visit three police stations and ask various government officials about the whereabouts of the two journalists.
Free Expression in Myanmar
Following the historic November 2015 elections, in which the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party won a decisive victory, and the establishment of a new civilian-led government in March 2016, hopes were high that the space for free expression in Myanmar would widen considerably. However, under the new government, journalists continue to be arrested and jailed for their work, while dozens of individuals have been threatened with legal charges for online expression under Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law. Working in partnership with PEN Myanmar, PEN America is campaigning for reform of the legal environment for freedom of expression and association, using our December 2015 report, Unfinished Freedom: A Blueprint for the Future of Free Expression in Myanmar, as a basis for advocacy. Concerted action is needed to abolish repressive laws, reform institutions, and support local civil society capacity to press for greater respect for free expression. Read more about our work in Myanmar here.
In Their Words
As Wa Lone was led out of court on January 10, 2018, he said, “They arrested us and took action against us because we were trying to reveal the truth.” After the court hearing, he also told journalists, “This is unacceptable. I want to tell you that they are charging us like this to stop us finding the truth. Their actions are wrong and unfair.”
After the hearing, Kyaw Soe Oo told reporters, “We are not doing anything wrong. Please help up by uncovering the truth.”
Massacre in Myanmar: A Reuters Special Report was published in February 2018 and is based in part on the journalists’ work just prior to their arrest.