Two journalists in Myanmar have been imprisoned for nearly a year for after exposing the massacre of Rohingya Muslims. But this isn’t just a story about press freedom. It also underscores some of the greatest challenges facing the relationship between governments and the people they govern.
“We’re seeing more and more laws that criminalize speech and increasingly zealous prosecution under those laws in many countries,” human rights lawyer Amal Clooney told me last week in New York. “Governments who are not well-meaning will do whatever they can get away with. So the question is: Is there a proper international response? Do they have something to fear? Are there relevant consequences?”
The international response to the imprisonment of Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo suggests that that answer is “no.” The chilling details of the massacre the journalists uncovered, which was part of the Myanmar government’s brutal ethnic-cleansing campaign against the Rohingya minority, are stunning enough. Yet their case is less unusual than you might think. Governments around the world are persecuting domestic and foreign journalists with extraordinary impunity. This broad trend is undermining the very notion of the rule of law.
I spoke with Clooney after an event sponsored by the Committee to Protect Journalists on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. She and other experts pointed out that journalists are confronting the same problems in countries such as Egypt, Turkey, Bangladesh, Hungary and the Philippines.
These regimes routinely hide behind claims that cases brought against journalists are matters of national security being carried out by independent judiciaries. But this is becoming a tired refrain from tyrants as well as leaders previously thought to be promoters of democracy who, unfortunately, have learned they can get away with it. President Trump’s tirade about sovereignty in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly last week only emboldens the perpetrators of this behavior by sending the message that the United States doesn’t care.
In the case of Myanmar, its de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has become a shameless abuser of power, divorcing herself from involvement in the case even while continuing to suggest that the two journalists deserve their punishment.
“If anyone feels that there has been a miscarriage of justice, I would like them to point it out,” Aung San Suu Kyi said recently. “They were not jailed because they were journalists.”
The Nobel committee has said it would not rescind the Peace Prize awarded to her in 1991, which she won for her heroic struggle against her country’s military dictatorship. But Canada’s House of Commons last week voted to revoke honorary citizenship that it granted her in 2007, citing her “persistent refusal to denounce the Rohingya genocide.”
Reuters’ reporting on the massacre in Rakhine state, and the mass grave it exposed, has been essential in raising international attention to the plight of the Rohingya. The arrests of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have only increased that awareness.
“People have trouble dealing with tragedy in the abstract, but when you have specifics it helps,” Stephen Adler, Reuters editor in chief, told me. “So if we can talk about reporters who are out there and the efforts they make, and also emphasize how fairly and accurately they’re trying to get the story, I think that helps.”
Aung San Suu Kyi might feel as though she is being treated unfairly by the West after years of unqualified support. But this is a function of the transparent nature of today’s world, aided by technology, that is making it ever harder for leaders to run from the truth.
Time and again, autocrats are being caught flat-footed. In the long run, this is a good thing — but for now they’re still managing to commit serious damage against the rule of law.
“The worst human rights abuses are going to happen in the dark,” Clooney said. “Governments can get away quite easily at the moment with using courts to suppress criticism. We have to start making a more concerted effort to address this.”
The United States should vocally demand the unconditional release of these two journalists and others falsely imprisoned around the world. It’s the right thing to do.
Meanwhile, Reuters is undeterred. It’s remaining loyal to its reporters, doing all in its power to shine a light on the terrible miscarriage of justice and rallying support from competing news organizations. At the same time, it continues to report from Myanmar.
“Someone has to be on the ground witnessing things and recording them,” Adler said. “We see that as a very important part of our mission. It’s dangerous to do that. It’s risky to do that.” And yet, he added, “We try to maintain civil relationships with governments. We try to have lines of communication open. When governments criticize us, we engage with them, we talk to them about it.”
When these conversations happen, one can only hope that Myanmar’s leaders will come to understand that jailing journalists is not something respectable governments do. A true democracy is built on the rule of law. Misusing the courts to silence reporters is not the way to protect it.