Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is outraged that Myanmar has found two Reuters journalists guilty of breaching a law on “state secrets”, sentencing them to seven years in prison.
Reuters reported on Tuesday that in response to the sentencing of Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, Haley (using Myanmar’s former name, Burma) said:
“It is clear to all that the Burmese military has committed vast atrocities. In a free country, it is the duty of a responsible press to keep people informed and hold leaders accountable. The conviction of two journalists for doing their job is another terrible stain on the Burmese government.”
Haley has been consistent in her calls that two reporters be freed, calling attention to their case over the months:
RT @USUN Met w/@Reuters & Amal Clooney to discuss actions for the release of 2 journos jailed for doing their job. Free press & rule of law are the bases that democracies are built on & we hope Burmese authorities will realize the importance of this release to the int’l community pic.twitter.com/y1pr1E53U5
— Nikki Haley (@nikkihaley) April 17, 2018
Courtney Radsch, advocacy director for the Committee to Protect Journalists, told ThinkProgress that it was “heartening” to hear the U.S. speak out about the unjust sentence, and pointing out locking up journalists is “completely out of line with any kind of democratic or progress or effort.”
But this kind of support — and speaking out about such abuses, she tells ThinkProgress — has “become more complicated under President [Donald] Trump’s administration, given his own anti-press rhetoric.”
It’s one thing to say that the United States seldom — if ever — criticizes its allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, for locking reporters up . Diplomacy, said Radsch, can be uneven, “selective,” and “hypocritical” business. But what to do about the fact that given his druthers, President Donald Trump would happily lock up reporters in the United States if he could get away with it?
It was just last year that the New York Times reported that Trump had pressed former F.B.I. Director James Comey to jail reporters who report information from classified documents.
Francisco Bencosme, the Asia Pacific Advocacy Manager at Amnesty International USA, pointed out that Haley’s support, on every level, has been great. However, “President Trump has not said anything on Myanmar, has never mentioned anything about [the] freeing of journalists in Myanmar, and then there’s the other elephant in the room,” he said, referring to Trump’s treatment of the press.
The two Reuters reporters, detained since December 12, 2017, have been found guilty of essentially reporting on classified documents by the newly-formed civilian government (which is in a power-sharing posture with the military). The judge condemning Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo said they violated the law by obtaining secret documents in their investigation of a mass killing of Rohingya boys and men by security forces.
Their work resulted in the arrest of seven soldiers in April, who the court agreed participated in the massacre at the village of Inn Din. They were all sentenced to 10 years of hard labor in prison.
This has been the worst unrest for the Rohingya in decades. Throughout it all, the government of Myanmar has maintained that the deaths of over 10,000 Rohingya, the displacement of over 70,000, and the reports of mass rapes and torched villages have all been “fake news.” The state has used all means at its disposal, including social media, to fan the flames of anti-Rohingya sentiment in the country.
Meanwhile, Myanmar has been “parroting” Trump’s language on cracking down on them — a development Bencosme told ThinkProgress he finds “alarming.”
Myanmar has been engaged in a brutal year-long campaign against the Rohingya Muslim minority that has been called “ethnic cleansing” and is being investigated as a potential genocide by the United Nations.
While hardly the first president looking to clamp down on press freedoms, President Trump has upped the ante. He has popularized the term “fake news,” called on investigative reporters to apologize for using leaked information, and used his social media presence and speaking engagements to lash out at the media, calling it the “enemy of the people”:
I just cannot state strongly enough how totally dishonest much of the Media is. Truth doesn’t matter to them, they only have their hatred & agenda. This includes fake books, which come out about me all the time, always anonymous sources, and are pure fiction. Enemy of the People!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 30, 2018
The president’s supporters have also recently been floating the idea that maybe he should be allowed to shut down outlets that knowingly publish false information, and the president himself has threatened to pull the licenses of broadcasters who have aired reports critical of his administration.
Still, rights groups such as CPJ continue to hope for more support from the United States on the rights of journalists. This is growing harder to get, given that the Trump administration pulled the United States out of both UNESCO and the U.N. Human Rights Council, two U.N. bodies that focus on press freedoms.
“We can’t preach about free press in a country like Myanmar when our own president is talking about calling the press the enemy of the people. And so there’s no question that it undermines our credibility…on this crucial human rights issue,” said Bencosme.
As for Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone, the two journalists pleaded not guilty and they have the option to appeal the decision to a regional court as well as the country’s Supreme Court.
Their employer is weighing the best way to proceed.
“Today is a sad day for Myanmar, Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, and the press everywhere,” said Reuters editor in chief Stephen J. Adler. “We will not wait while Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo suffer this injustice and will evaluate how to proceed in the coming days, including whether to seek relief in an international forum.”