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Outrage at Myanmar crackdown on press

In her first day on the job, U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet took on Myanmar's government and defended the right to press freedom.

GENEVA (AN) — In her first day on the job, U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet lost no time taking on a government built on authoritarian military rule and defending the right to press freedom.

Bachelet, the new head of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, strongly condemned Myanmar's conviction of two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, and called for their immediate and unconditional release.

The two journalists published a bombshell story in February about Buddhist villagers and Myanmar troops killing 10 Rohingya men in the village of Inn Din in Myanmar's Rakhine State last year.

Authorities arrested and charged the two journalists with violating the Official Secrets Act, a colonial-era law that is punishable by up to 14 years in prison. The reporters pleaded not guilty and said the police framed them. They were sentenced to seven years in prison and labeled "enemies of the state."

"Their coverage of the Inn Din massacre by the military — for which the military subsequently admitted responsibility — was clearly in the public interest as it may otherwise never have come to light," Bachelet said in a statement.

"Their conviction follows a legal process that clearly breached international standards," she said. "It sends a message to all journalists in Myanmar that they cannot operate fearlessly, but must rather make a choice to either self-censor or risk prosecution."

Her statement reflected growing international condemnation of the Myanmar military's human rights abuses against Rohingya Muslims. A panel of U.N. human rights investigators last week identified six Myanmar military leaders that it said should be prosecuted for genocide.

Bachelet, who was Chile’s first female president and served two terms in that office from 2006 to 2010 and from 2014 to 2018, urged the conviction to be quashed and for the Reuters journalists to be released along with all other journalists around the globe who have been detained for doing their jobs.

"Compelling evidence of a police set-up"

The case also highlights just how far Myanmar's civilian government led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, which took power in 2016, still has to go to fulfill its promise of democratic reforms.

As the two journalists were led away from the courthouse, Wa Lone told the crowd their convictions were grossly unfair and that the authorities "are obviously threatening our democracy and destroying freedom of the press in our country."

Reuters' editor-in-chief Stephen Adler said in a statement that it was "a sad day" for Myanmar, the two journalists and the press everywhere. He called it "a major step backward in Myanmar’s transition to democracy, cannot be squared with the rule of law or freedom of speech, and must be corrected by the Myanmar government as a matter of urgency."

"These two admirable reporters have already spent nearly nine months in prison on false charges designed to silence their reporting and intimidate the press," Adler said. "Without any evidence of wrongdoing and in the face of compelling evidence of a police set-up, today’s ruling condemns them to the continued loss of their freedom and condones the misconduct of security forces."

Suu Kyi's approach to the Rohingya crisis has infuriated and disappointed many of her former admirers. Some 700,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh to escape from being attacked after Rohingya militants killed a dozen members of the security forces.

U.N. human rights investigators called for the mass killing of Rohingya in Myanmar to be referred to the prosecutor’s office of the International Criminal Court based at The Hague, Netherlands, or for the creation of “an ad hoc international criminal tribunal” to handle it.

“There is sufficient information to warrant the investigation and prosecution of senior officials in the Tatmadaw chain of command, so that a competent court can determine their liability for genocide in relation to the situation in Rakhine State,” the investigators concluded in their report, using the official name for the nation’s armed forces.

Pro-democracy activists and journalists marched on Yangon to protest the convictions, but the nation's Buddhist majority is broadly biased against the Rohingya and much of the country remains fearful of outside criticism, much of it lodged by human rights organizations and leaders.

“Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo face lengthy jail terms simply because they dared to ask uncomfortable questions about military atrocities in Rakhine State," Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International’s director of crisis response, said in a statement.

"These convictions must be quashed, and both men immediately and unconditionally released," Hassan said. “This politically-motivated decision has significant ramifications for press freedom in Myanmar. It sends a stark warning to other journalists in the country of the severe consequences that await should they look too closely at military abuses. This amounts to censorship through fear."

Earlier this year a court in Myanmar let the trial continue despite a police officer's testimony as a prosecution witness that his commander ordered documents planted on the journalists. The documents turned out to be not particularly important, and the police officer was sent to jail for a year while his family was forcibly relocated because of the testimony.

Bachelet said that within days the U.N. human rights office would "issue a report on the worrying state of freedom of expression in Myanmar, with a number of recommendations for legal and policy reform."