Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
The release of two Reuters journalists from their cell in Myanmar is undoubtedly positive news. But, amidst the celebrations, we should take time to remember that their incarceration reflects how the freedom of the press is in substantial danger.
511 days. That is how long it has taken for the media-suppressing Myanmar State to release Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe after they were convicted on charges of breaking the official secrets act, an accusation they have always denied. Lone and Soe were investigating the killings of ten Rohingya men in the Rakhine province, where there has been wide-scale violence against the Rohingya population (violence that has been ignored and arguably endorsed by Aung San Suu Kyi’s government). In December 2017, the two men were arrested following a set up by the police, which subsequently saw them sentenced to seven years in jail. Despite numerous international bodies voicing concern, political pressure being applied, and humanitarian groups campaigning for their release, Lone and Soe’s repeated appeals against their sentence were thrown out of court.
However, this week has finally seen their triumphant freedom, surely a symbol of hope for all those aiming to tell the truth of voiceless minorities. Whilst I raised a smile as Wa Lone held his infant daughter as a free man for the first time, it was also a painful reminder of the heavy price paid by some to hold unlawful institutions to account. The work these two men were conducting aimed to uncover genocidal acts perpetrated by the Myanmar military. The heinous act of genocide is arguably the worst crime possible, as it implies government complicity in ethnic cleansing and suggests a sense of racial superiority is present. The imprisonment of Lone and Soe implies that the military is not just a danger to those who criticise its authority; it seemingly confirms that there is a cover-up of shady practices and inhumane actions against innocent Muslims.
This case has shed significant light on the practices of the military in Myanmar and awoken the world to the fact that the once glorified Aung San Suu Kyi does not deserve her title as a proponent of human rights. Indeed, the investigation was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting, recognising the necessity of bringing such stories to the public’s attention. But their tale is just one of many. Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division for Human Rights Watch, has remarked that:
The military punished these journalists to intimidate others. They wanted to let everyone know that, ‘Hey, we can come after you, too.’
This proves that press freedom is still under incarceration even as Lone and Soe are freed. This is not, as tweeted by Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, a ‘rare glimmer of hope’ in a society where the media is silenced. It is important that we don’t view this step as a significant improvement to the Myanmar regime. The fact is that the criminal acts that persecute against a defenceless minority are still being conducted. Rohingyas are still under threat. The military still holds masses of power. The government is still allowing atrocities against innocent people.
Furthermore, the release of two men does not counterbalance the increasing hostility shown towards journalists across the world. In 2018 at least 251 reporters were jailed in attempts to stifle their stories and cover up corrupt authorities. This new record level of incarceration indicates that journalism is under attack more than ever. Whilst the release of Lone and Soe is cause for celebration, on a wider scale, the cause for concern is greater. Their release was only achieved through over a year and a half of international pressure and human rights campaigns.
Although ultimately successful, I fear for the future of wrongfully imprisoned journalists, particularly in the context of increasing distrust in the media perpetuated by the rhetoric of the US President. Donald Trump’s twitter tirades against the press as the ‘enemy of the people’ legitimise the idea that any news story that holds those in authority to account is untrue and not worth investigating. Should this message grasp hold of people’s mindsets, the world exposes itself to the peril of corrupt regimes and dishonest governments going unchallenged and innocent people becoming victims of vicious brutality.