Two journalists in Myanmar, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were among those from Reuters awarded the Pultizer Prize for international reporting this month for documenting the plight of the Rohingya Muslim minority. But these two will not be enjoying the hugs of family and applause of colleagues. They are in jail - unjustly, in a case that can only cause outrage at what has gone wrong in Myanmar, also known as Burma.
These journalists produced haunting and dramatic coverage of the scorched-earth campaign by Burmese security forces against the Rohingya in northern Rakhine state that sent more than 700,000 Rohingya fleeing their homes and villages for neighboring Bangladesh, where they remain. The two journalists were part of a team that produced, among other things, a report about the massacre of 10 Rohingya men - two of them high school students - at the village of Inn Din in September 2017. The men were buried in a shallow grave, and Reuters reconstructed the story of how they were killed, as well as the details of the role played by two elite Myanmar infantry divisions in the ethnic cleansing.
The journalists were investigating the massacre when they were given documents rolled up in a newspaper by a police source, clearly a setup. They were then arrested for possessing secret documents. On Tuesday, Myanmar’s Supreme Court rejected their appeals and let stand a seven-year sentence. Obviously, the journalists had become irritants to Myanmar’s still-powerful security apparatus, and they were punished for their reporting.
The rights to free expression and a free press were pillars of Aung San Suu Kyi’s cause when she stoically faced off against Myanmar’s military rulers, enduring years under house arrest. Sadly, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate who is now Myanmar’s de facto civilian leader, has proved unable or unwilling to rein in the generals. It is absurdly wrong to put the reporters in prison and not the perpetrators of repression.
Authoritarian leaders from Turkey to Vietnam are silencing the news media. The latest annual index of press freedom in 180 countries published by Reporters Without Borders “shows that an intense climate of fear has been triggered” in many places, raising the danger level for journalists. The United States fell three places in the index to 48th in the world. On the same day that the Myanmar journalists lost their appeal, President Donald Trump pathetically demanded the New York Times apologize to him “on their knees & beg for forgiveness” and declared the newspaper is “truly the Enemy of the People.” U.S. presidents were once considered to be the leaders of the free world. It is a sad day when the incumbent has more in common with the prison wardens of Myanmar. Neither in the United States, nor Burma, nor anywhere between, should journalists be thus tarred for work that is essential to a healthy and thriving democracy.