Reuters Reporters Are Charged in Myanmar With Obtaining State Secrets
BANGKOK — Two journalists for the Reuters news agency were formally charged in Myanmar with obtaining state secrets, prosecutors said Wednesday, in a case seen as a key test of the country’s nascent political freedoms.
The reporters, U Wa Lone and U Kyaw Soe Oo, have been accused of violating the Official Secrets Act, a law dating to the British colonial period that carries a maximum punishment of 14 years in prison.
The journalists were brought to court in Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital, where they were arrested on Dec. 12, almost immediately after being given unidentified documents by members of the police.
Before their arrest, the journalists had been investigating the existence of a mass grave in Rakhine State, where a military campaign against Rohingya Muslims has sent more than 655,000 members of the persecuted minority fleeing to Bangladesh over the past four and a half months.
While the United States and the United Nations have called the campaign against the Rohingya ethnic cleansing, the Myanmar government has blocked independent investigators and journalists from the epicenter of violence, making it difficult to gather proof of atrocities.
On Wednesday evening, the military released the results of its investigation into the mass grave in the village of Inn Din, which the Reuters journalists had been investigating. A statement on the Facebook page of the military’s commander in chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, said that the 10 bodies there were of Muslims who had been taken to the cemetery and killed by villagers and security forces “because they were terrorists.”
The army crackdown on the Rohingya began after Rohingya insurgents attacked security posts in late August.
Rohingya in Bangladesh refugee camps have given consistent accounts of rape and murder at the hands of the Myanmar military and Buddhist vigilantes. Satellite images collected by human rights groups document the destruction by fire of hundreds of Rohingya villages in northern Rakhine.
Negotiating a scrum of journalists gathered in front of the Insein courthouse in Yangon on Wednesday morning, Mr. Wa Lone struck a defiant pose, raising his cuffed hands and later flashing a thumbs-up sign.
“We are not doing anything wrong,” Mr. Kyaw Soe Oo told journalists after the hearing. “Please help us by uncovering the truth.”
A lawyer for both journalists, U Than Zaw Aung, said that Mr. Wa Lone is suffering from a hernia and back pain but has received no medical treatment while in detention. The next court appearance for his clients will be on Jan. 23, he said.
“The situation is very unclear,” said Ma Pan Ei Mon, Mr. Wa Lone’s wife. “I’m hoping all the time that he will be released soon.”
In a statement, Stephen J. Adler, the president and editor in chief of Reuters, called the move to prosecute the reporters “a wholly unwarranted, blatant attack on press freedom,” adding, “We believe time is of the essence and we continue to call for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s prompt release.”
The United States and the European Union both called for the men’s release on Wednesday. “For democracy to succeed and flourish, journalists must be able to do their jobs,” the embassy said in a statement.
Although Myanmar now has a civilian government, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the military that ruled the country for nearly half a century still controls the most important levers of power. The Tatmadaw, as the military is known, runs the Home Ministry, which administers Myanmar’s internal affairs, including its prisons and police.
Human rights groups have accused the police of entrapping the two Reuters journalists by giving them documents that were then deemed state secrets. Ms. Pan Ei Mon said her husband never had a chance to look at the papers before he was arrested.
Myanmar’s elected civilian government has been accused of acquiescing to a crackdown on the media that belies the commitment to democratic values once espoused by Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s governing party, the National League for Democracy. Since the party took power in 2016, at least 32 journalists have been charged with various crimes, according to We Support Journalists, a local media watchdog.
Many of the journalists have been imprisoned after reporting on abuses taking place in Myanmar’s ethnic frontier lands, where the military has been fighting various ethnic guerrilla groups for decades.
U Swe Win, a veteran journalist and former political prisoner who is himself facing defamation charges that could return him to jail, noted that the news media, which had been muzzled during military rule, enjoyed a renaissance during a period of transitional governance from 2011-15, when U Thein Sein, a former junta general, led the country.
Dozens of new publications emerged from the shadow of censorship in those years. But today, local reporters are uncertain whether their investigations, particularly into military malfeasance, might land them in jail.
“Now we don’t have transparency, and we don’t know what’s happening inside the government,” Mr. Swe Win said. “All we know is that we journalists are always facing problems with the military, which means the civilian government has no power.”
Turkish government blasts Constitutional Court’s ruling on jailed journalists
The Constitutional Court’s ruling that the jailing of journalists Şahin Alpay and Mehmet Altan during the trial violates their constitutional rights “is not the final decision,” Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım has said.
Yıldırım told reporters on Jan. 12 that the local court will “give the right decision as it has the full knowledge about the case.”
According to the Turkish Constitution, the Constitutional Court is legally superior to lower courts and its rulings are binding, but its Dec. 11 decision on Alpay and Altan drew the ire of some ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) members.
Yıldırım, however, said debating the Constitutional Court’s ruling would not be in line with the principles of a state of law.
“Rushing to comment would be unfair to the court,” he added, noting that the top court merely ruled against the grounds for arrest during the trial.
The Constitutional Court’s decision covers the pre-trial detention period, before the preparation of the prosecutor’s indictment, and the process after the indictment should be left to the local court’s decision, Yıldırım said.
“The first decree court responsible for the case has the deepest knowledge about the case file. Neither we nor the Constitutional Court knows its content,” the prime minister added.
He also called on all courts and all state institutions to be “careful when making decisions” in order to not weaken the ongoing struggle against the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETÖ).
“As the executive organ, our expectation is that one should not take a decision that would weaken [the struggle] or be interpreted in this way,” Yıldırım said.
Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ was more openly critical of the Constitutional Court ruling.
“[With the ruling], the Constitutional Court has gone beyond the limits set by the constitution and the laws, acting as a first degree court by evaluating the case and the evidence,” Bozdağ wrote on his Twitter account on Jan. 12.
“When ruling on individual applications, the Constitutional Court cannot act as a first degree court or an appeals court and rule accordingly,” he added.
AKP Deputy Chair Hayati Yazıcı said the “Constitutional Court should use its authority, which is given for improvement of the state of law, very precisely, meticulously and carefully.”
The Istanbul court rejected the order of the Constitutional Court “because apparently it has the same view about the ruling,” Yazıcı said at a press conference.
“It is extremely sad that there are processes in the courts that will lead to disputes. We should not be discussing courts,” he added.
Local court resisted top court’s order
Hours after the Constitutional Court’s decision, two Istanbul High Criminal Courts where Alpay and Altan are being tried resisted the higher court’s ruling, saying the verdict had not yet been published in the Official Gazette.
In a move that could have been considered a reply to the local courts, the Constitutional Court’s official Twitter account then posted a tweet stating that all fully detailed rulings are available on its official website.
The Constitutional Court’s decisions are legally binding for lower courts, which are not free to recognize or dismiss rulings as they wish.
“Trial courts do not have the authority to consider, dismiss or reject Constitutional Court rulings. In this case they can only now decide for [Alpay and Altan’s] immediate release,” Professor Yaman Akdeniz, a law academic at Bilgi University, posted on his official Twitter account on Jan. 12.
Precedent for other cases
Before the local courts refused to release Alpay and Altan on Jan. 11, lawyer Veysel Ok, who submitted the application to the Constitutional Court on behalf of Alpay, had said the top court’s decision could stand out as a precedent for other journalist trials in Turkey.
“This ruling, which is the first application of its kind since the [July 2016] coup attempt, should set a precedent for all trials,” Ok said.
“It clearly states that news stories and opinion pieces cannot be used as evidence of a crime. I hope this ruling is the first step toward the broader expression of the right to freedom of expression in the country,” he added
The two journalists, who have both been in prison for more than a year so far, were jailed in the aftermath of the coup attempt.
Both Altan and Alpay are accused of “links to terrorist groups” and “attempting to overthrow the government,” charges they have denied.
An Istanbul prosecutor sought in December last year aggravated life sentences for each of the six suspects in the case probing the “media wing” of the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETÖ), including Altan, his brother Ahmet Altan, Nazlı Ilıcak and three other suspects currently under arrest who face aggravated jail terms for “violating the constitution” and “having prior knowledge of the coup.”
Around 160 journalists are currently in jail in the country, according to the Turkish Journalists’ Association.
International journalism groups say Turkey is now the world’s largest jail of journalists.
Many of the jailed reporters have been charged with spreading propaganda for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or the network of the U.S.-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen, widely believed to have masterminded the coup attempt.
European Council President Jean-Claude Juncker warned on Jan. 12 that there could be “no progress” in Ankara’s relations with the European Union “as long as journalists are detained in Turkey.”
Caruana Galizia case: Malta ex-corruption investigator fears for life
A former anti-corruption investigator in Malta has told BBC Newsnight he fears for his life after looking into allegations made by murdered journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Jonathan Ferris is seeking full police protection amid concerns he could be targeted after looking into her claims against top political figures.
Caruana Galizia was killed in a car bomb near her home on 16 October.
She was known for a blog in which she accused powerful figures of corruption.
Prosecutors are looking into the possibility that her murder was carried out by hitmen on the orders of someone angered by her reporting.
The Maltese government has vowed to bring her killers to justice and offered a €1m (£890,000; $1.2m) reward for information.
Why is Ferris frightened?
One of the investigations Caruana Galizia was working on at the time of her death centred on allegations against the Maltese prime minister's chief of staff, Keith Schembri, and a senior minister called Konrad Mizzi.
Caruana Galizia said they were both financial beneficiaries of secretive "shell" companies registered in Panama.
Mr Mizzi and Mr Schembri were named in the Panama Papers, a massive data leak from Panama law firm Mossack Fonseca in 2015. Both deny any wrongdoing and say their companies were never used.
Mr Ferris says he was looking into the case last year while working at the Financial Intelligence Analysis Unit (FIAU), Malta's anti-money laundering agency.
But he was sacked in June from the FIAU because, he believes, his work threatened to uncover sensitive secrets.
"We believe there was political interference," he told the BBC's Newsnight programme.
The FIAU has denied this. The anti-money laundering agency told the BBC that Mr Ferris's dismissal was based "solely on an objective and comprehensive performance assessment".
But Mr Ferris has now threatened to reveal information he discovered - "should something happen to me".
"Following 16 October, and what happened to Daphne Caruana Galizia, I divided my work and my information into six different envelopes with specific notes," he said.
"They are distributed to six members of family and close friends, and should something happen to me abruptly - say I'm killed - all that information will go public at once."
Jason Azzopardi, a shadow justice ministry spokesman, said Mr Ferris's fears that he could be targeted were "realistic".
Scared enough to carry a gun
By John Sweeney, BBC Newsnight
Malta is a house divided against itself. Supporters of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat applaud his economic boom while his detractors point to an enfeeblement of the rule of law - and the hard evidence for that is the assassination of his government's greatest critic, Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Unease and anxiety are part of Maltese life. Former money laundering investigator Jonathan Ferris fears for his life enough to carry a gun, legally.
Immediately after our interview, he offered me a ride back to my hotel. We walked through the gloom of an underground car park to his car and suddenly I felt a stab of terror - that getting blown up was not impossible.
Ferris turned the ignition and the engine started normally and I found myself laughing, too loud and too long. For a second or two, I had tasted the fear that grips those people in Malta who believe they know too much for their own good.
What else was Caruana Galizia investigating?
She alleged that a company owned by the Azerbaijani president's daughter paid $1m to a Panama company ultimately owned by the Maltese prime minister's wife, Michelle Muscat.
Speaking to the BBC Newsnight's John Sweeney, Mr Muscat categorically denied that he or his wife had used secret offshore accounts to hide payments from Azerbaijan's ruling family - and hit back at Caruana Galizia's reports.
"I know I am in a quite uncomfortable situation having to criticise someone who has been killed brutally."
But he added: "She didn't have any evidence because what she said was totally incorrect."
Mr Muscat also said Caruana Galizia's source was discredited. Caruana Galizia did not produce any documentary evidence to back up her allegation against the prime minister's wife.
In her popular blog, the journalist also alleged that Malta's Economics Minister Chris Cardona went to a brothel while at a conference in Germany in January 2017.
Mr Cardona denies any wrongdoing. He sued Caruana Galizia, saying he was in his hotel room at the time. That case is ongoing.
Who killed her?
Three brothers - George and Alfred Degiorgio, aged 55 and 53, and Vincent Muscat, 55 - have been charged with murder and pleaded not guilty.
Investigators say the killers detonated the bomb using a mobile phone on a boat offshore. They are looking into whom the suspects had contact with in the run-up to the killing.
Friends of the journalist say they do not believe she investigated the three men charged with her killing.
"Daphne has never ever mentioned these three persons in none of her 20,000 articles," said Mr Azzopardi."It's an open secret that these are not the persons who commissioned the murder, and we will not rest until we find out who commissioned the murder and what was the motive.
SourceMore articles about Daphne Caruana Galizia at the source or this article.
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