YANGON, Myanmar — A court in Myanmar on Friday rejected the appeal of two Reuters journalists convicted of violating the country's Official Secrets Act during their reporting on the country's crackdown on Rohingya Muslims, maintaining the seven-year prison terms they were sentenced to last year.
Judge Aung Naing of the Yangon High Court said in his ruling that lawyers for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo failed to submit enough evidence to prove they were innocent. Neither man was in court for the ruling.
The conviction of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo has drawn condemnation from rights groups, Western governments and global press associations and has raised questions about press freedom in Myanmar as it transitions from decades of military rule.
Although the military has kept control of several key ministries, Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's rise to heading the government had raised hopes for more democratic freedoms.
“Today's ruling is yet another injustice among many inflicted upon Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo,” Reuters Editor-In-Chief Stephen J. Adler said in a statement Friday. “They remain behind bars for one reason: Those in power sought to silence the truth. Reporting is not a crime, and until Myanmar rights this terrible wrong, the press in Myanmar is not free, and Myanmar's commitment to rule of law and democracy remains in doubt.”
The two journalists were convicted of violating the colonial era Official Secrets Act after they were found with government documents in their possession. They were arrested on Dec. 12, 2017, in the country's main city, Yangon, immediately after having a meal to which police officers had invited them.
One police officer, despite being called as a prosecution witness, testified that his superiors had ordered the men to be entrapped with documents planted on them. The officer, Capt. Moe Yan Naing was dropped from the force after his testimony and jailed for a year for breaking police regulations.
Supporters of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo contend they were framed because of official displeasure over their reporting on the brutal crackdown by security forces on minority Rohingya in Rakhine state.
More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh following a crackdown that began in August 2017. Critics have described the campaign as ethnic cleansing, or even genocide, on the part of Myanmar security forces.
Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, had worked on one of the most detailed accounts of official abuses, an investigation of the killing of 10 Rohingya villagers in Inn Din village, for which seven soldiers were eventually sentenced to up to 10 years in prison with hard labor.
European Union ambassador to Myanmar Kristian Schmidt, who also was at court, described the ruling as “a great disappointment and a missed opportunity to correct a wrong that has been committed against the two journalists.”
“It casts serious doubts on the independence of the judiciary of Myanmar and for people's right to information and learning the truth,” he said.
He called for Myanmar's president to have the journalists released immediately and unconditionally.
Kyaw Soe Oo's wife, Chit Su, said the ruling came as a surprise.
“We thought that they would be free today,” she said. “We were expecting to welcome them in front of Insein Prison.”
“I still believe that they will be free,” she added.
Lawyers for the men had previously said that if their appeal failed, they would have to hope for a pardon or general amnesty to obtain an early release.
One of them, Than Zaw Aung, told reporters Friday there were still two or three more steps they could take in the courts, involving appeals, and they have 60 days to make a submission to the country's Supreme Court.
The reporters’ work and stand for freedom of the press have earned them awards and plaudits. Most notably, they were among a group of journalists honored by Time magazine as “Person of the Year.” The cover of some editions of the magazine showed their wives holding photos of the two.