As two Reuters journalists appeared in court on Wednesday, which marked their 100th day behind bars facing charges under Burma’s Official Secrets Act, a second attempt by their defence team to submit an exhibit into evidence that is potentially at the heart of the trial was again rejected.
The exhibit, which the judge said would be considered for admission into the court record at a later date, is an investigative exposé published by Reuters last month on the massacre of 10 Rohingya Muslims at the village of Inn Din in northern Rakhine State. Defendants Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were two of the reporters working on the story at the time of their arrest on 12 December.
Presiding Judge Ye Lwin said Wednesday that a technical expert from the Criminal Investigation Department was among those on a list of prosecution witnesses due to testify at a hearing in future, and that his appearance before the court would be the appropriate time to consider the defence’s motion. The judge offered a similar justification in denying the defence’s first attempt to submit the story as an exhibit in the trial at a hearing on 21 February.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were detained in Yangon by Burmese authorities on 12 December, allegedly in possession of sensitive government documents, which could see the pair imprisoned for up to 14 years under Burma’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act.
Two witnesses for the prosecution took the stand on Wednesday, including for the first time a member of one of the defendants’ families.
Thura Aung, the younger brother of Wa Lone, told the court that police did not show a search warrant prior to their raid on the family home in Yangon’s Mayangone Township the day after his brother was taken into custody. Nor were those present at the house during the search told of the reason for it, he said.
Attorney for the defence Than Zaw Aung told reporters after the hearing that the police’s failure to present a search warrant or explain their actions at the scene constituted a violation of the Criminal Procedure Code.
Reuters has been at the forefront of reporting on the latest crisis in Rakhine State, where press access has been severely restricted since late August amid damaging allegations leveled against security forces who have been accused by the UN of ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority — and possibly worse.
As the accusations have piled up, the military and government have pushed back strongly, with a particular focus on discrediting international media outlets’ coverage of the situation. Reuters has been no less aggressive in defending its detained employees and their work.
“They have been detained in Myanmar since December 12 simply for doing their jobs as journalists,” Stephen J. Adler, the president and editor-in-chief of Reuters, said in a statement ahead of Wednesday’s hearing. “Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are exemplary individuals and outstanding reporters who are dedicated to their families and their craft. They should be in the newsroom, not in prison.”
He added, “We call on the authorities in Myanmar to release them as soon as possible and allow them to return to their families and their jobs.”
The Danish Embassy in Yangon has been among the most vocal of several EU delegations following the trial with a critical eye, and an all-caps heading in a post to its Facebook account on Wednesday was no exception: “100 DAYS BEHIND BARS FOR ENSURING THE PUBLIC’S RIGHT TO INFORMATION; RELEASE WA LONE AND KYAW SOE OO NOW,” it blared.
EU Ambassador to Burma Kristian Schmidt, who was present for Wednesday’s hearing at Yangon’s Northern District Court, spoke of the two Reuters reporters at an event last week to honour three Burmese human rights defenders.
“Democracy dies a little every single day these two journalists spend in a prison cell, rather than in the newsroom,” he said during the awards ceremony at his Yangon residence on 15 March.
Wednesday was the Reuters duo’s 11th appearance before the court, with their next hearing scheduled for 28 March.