MYANMAR, Aug 21: The judge in the trial of two Reuters reporters jailed in Myanmar on accusations of obtaining secret state documents said on Monday he will deliver his verdict on Aug. 27, in a case seen as a test of press freedom in the fledgling democracy.
The judge set the date after hearing closing arguments from both sides, during which lawyers for the two journalists said they had been “trapped” by police in an effort to interfere with their reporting of a massacre of Rohingya Muslims.
“The duty of the reporter is to reveal the truth,” said lead defense lawyer Khin Maung Zaw. “Some people may not be okay with that truth.”
Khin Maung Zaw said the prosecution had failed to establish that the documents at the heart of the case were sought out by the reporters or that they were a threat to national security, crucial components of the case against them.
The court in Yangon has been holding hearings since January to decide whether, Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, are guilty of breaching the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison.
At the time of their arrest last year, the two reporters were working on a Reuters investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys in a village in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, during an army crackdown that United Nations’ agencies say sent some 700,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh.
Lead prosecutor Kyaw Min Aung outlined the state’s case against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, whose actions, he said, showed they “intended to harm” the country. By acquiring documents that could pose a threat to the state if their contents were obtained by extremist groups, he said, the pair were working for the benefit of Reuters rather than for the national interest.
“Reuters is a foreign news agency that pays its reporters in dollars,” he said. “It was found from the reporters that they sent their news to Reuters and their own evidence shows that Reuters sells news for money.”
Defense lawyer Khin Maung Zaw said it was obvious Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were reporters and the court had heard no testimony to suggest they were spies.
“The government has not designated Reuters an enemy of the nation,” he added.
Government spokesman Zaw Htay could not be reached for comment on Monday. He has mostly declined to comment throughout the proceedings, saying Myanmar’s courts are independent.
Reuters said in a statement there was no basis for a conviction and that it looked forward to the reporters’ acquittal, which it said would be an important step towards demonstrating Myanmar’s commitment to the rule of law, freedom of the press, and democracy.
“The evidence before the court is clear: Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are two honest reporters who did not commit a crime,” said the new agency in the statement. “Imprisoning them for even one more day would be unlawful retribution for their truthful and important journalism.”
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have told the court they were entrapped by police officials who planted documents on them shortly before their arrest on Dec. 12. They say Police Lance Corporal Naing Lin and another officer handed them the documents in a rolled-up newspaper at a Yangon restaurant.
A police captain, Moe Yan Naing, testified that a superior officer had instructed his subordinates, including Naing Lin, to “trap” the reporters. Naing Lin has told the court he met the reporters, but denied giving them anything.
The reporters have said they were hooded, handcuffed, and deprived of sleep during days of interrogation.
The case has captured global attention and has come to be seen as a test of press freedom and reforms in Myanmar, where the military still wields considerable influence. Senior U.N officials, Western nations and press freedom advocates have called for the release of the two journalists. The courtroom on Monday was filled with foreign diplomats and observers.
Wa Lone’s wife, Pan Ei Mon, who earlier this month gave birth to the couple’s first child, was not present. After the hearing, Kyaw Soe Oo’s wife, Chit Su Win, carried their three-year-old daughter out of the court as she sobbed “papa”.
Speaking to reporters, Wa Lone said he hoped the court would rule in their favor.
“We firmly believe that the court will make a fair decision and will free us,” he said. “I firmly believe that, before long, I will be able to return to my baby girl.”