YANGON, Myanmar — Myanmar’s High Court rejected Friday the appeal of two Reuters journalists jailed last year on charges of violating the country’s colonial-era secrets law in a case that has drawn widespread condemnation from rights groups, foreign governments and media watchdogs as an attack on a free press.
Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were sentenced in September to seven years in prison by a district court after a months-long trial in which a key prosecution witness admitted in court that their arrests were a setup. The two journalists were reporting on the situation of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority. More than 720,000 Rohingya have fled violence in the country.
High Court Judge Aung Naing called the original conviction a “suitable ruling.”
Than Zaw Aung, the lawyer for the two men, said outside the courthouse, “The judgment is very disappointing, not just for the journalists, but for the rule of law here.” Neither of the defendants attended the proceeding.
The conviction can still be appealed to the Supreme Court of Myanmar, the country’s final court of appeals, which is located in the capital, Naypyidaw. Than Zaw Aung said he needed to discuss Friday’s decision with the families before deciding whether to file a final appeal.
Reuters editor in chief Stephen J. Adler described the ruling as the latest injustice visited on the two men.
“They remain behind bars for one reason: those in power sought to silence the truth,” he said in a statement. “Reporting is not a crime, and until Myanmar rights this terrible wrong, the press in Myanmar is not free, and Myanmar’s commitment to rule of law and democracy remains in doubt.”
Friday’s decision came despite substantial international pressure. During a mid-November meeting in Singapore, Vice President Pence pressed de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi multiple times about releasing the journalists, according to White House officials.
“We are deeply disappointed that the Yangon High Court upheld the convictions of journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo today,” said Aryani Manring, a spokeswoman at the U.S. Embassy in Yangon. “A free and independent press should be protected in any democracy.”
Maja Kocijancic, the European Union’s spokeswoman for foreign affairs, said the court’s decision was a “setback to media freedom.”
“The ruling casts serious doubt over the independence of Myanmar’s justice system,” she said.
President Win Myint has the authority to pardon the two journalists. He would likely need the blessing of Suu Kyi, who is barred by the constitution from serving as president and instead effectively leads the government in the role of state counselor. She has previously defended the jailing.
Zaw Htay, a spokesman for the government, did not immediately respond to request for comment Friday.
“It’s very sad,” said Chit Su Win, Kyaw Soe Oo’s wife. “We were even hoping to go and see them at the jail when they were released today.”
The two were charged with a violation of the Official Secrets Act. Press freedom groups and activists say it is still used to muzzle independent reporting in the Southeast Asian nation, even though military rule has given way to a quasi-civilian government.
Violation of the law carries a maximum of 14 years in prison. At the time of their arrest in early December 2017, the two were reporting on the massacre of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys in a village in Rakhine state on Myanmar’s west coast.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, defended their prosecution last year, saying that the two “were not jailed because they were journalists” and that the ruling came from an “open court.” The judge, however, wrote in his verdict that the two were in possession of sensitive documents only because they were working as reporters.
Win Htein, a confidant of Suu Kyi and a senior member of her political party, said he suspected the case was a setup, calling it a “trap.”
Police officers asked the Reuters journalists to meet them on the night of Dec. 12, 2017, when they were handed rolled-up documents. Shortly after they left a restaurant where the meeting took place, the two said, they were stopped by other officers, accused of obtaining secret documents and detained.
During the trial, one police officer involved in the arrest told the court that he had inexplicably burned his notes about the event. But the most damning admission came when a police captain testified that he was instructed by his superiors to trap Wa Lone. Captain Moe Yan Naing was subsequently sentenced to prison for violating the police force’s disciplinary code and remains incarcerated.
Outside Myanmar, the two have been hailed for their reporting, which detailed evidence linking state security forces to the killings in the village of Inn Din. The massacre was part of a larger crackdown against the Rohingya, a campaign that United Nations investigators have said had genocidal intent.
The military, which remains a powerful political force in Myanmar, sentenced seven soldiers to 10 years in prison with hard labor in April for their roles in the massacre.
The two journalists have won numerous international awards for their reporting. Most recently, they were named along with other journalists as Time magazine’s Person of the Year for 2018.
Inside Myanmar, where the Rohingya are a largely detested minority, the reaction has been at times less favorable. The two have been accused of betraying the country and labeled as traitors.
A small group of fellow journalists and activists has staged periodic protests and continues to call for the release of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.
“It is not just that they are in jail,” said Maung Saungkha, a poet and executive director of Athan, an activist group that advocates for freedom of expression. “It is the press freedom of the country that is in jail.”
McLaughlin reported from Hong Kong.