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Jailed Reporter in Myanmar Challenges Prosecution’s Version of His Arrest

HONG KONG — A Reuters reporter jailed for months by Myanmar’s government has challenged the prosecution’s account of how he and a colleague were arrested, the latest twist in a closely watched trial that highlights the government’s tense relationship with the news media.

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Mike Ives
, New York Times

HONG KONG — A Reuters reporter jailed for months by Myanmar’s government has challenged the prosecution’s account of how he and a colleague were arrested, the latest twist in a closely watched trial that highlights the government’s tense relationship with the news media.

The testimony Monday by the journalist, U Wa Lone, came more than half a year after he and a Reuters colleague were arrested in Yangon, Myanmar’s major city, while investigating violence against the persecuted Rohingya ethnic minority, Reuters reported. It was the first time the defense had a chance to present its case to the court.

The prosecution has said the two reporters were detained during a routine traffic stop, Reuters reported. But Wa Lone told a Yangon court Monday that the arrest occurred after he and his colleague, U Kyaw Soe Oo, met two police officers in a Yangon restaurant.

Wa Lone said one of the officers, Naing Lin, had arranged a meeting for the same day, insisting that it was urgent because he was about to be reassigned to another region.

In the restaurant, the officer handed the journalists rolled-up documents that had “nothing to do with our conversation," Wa Lone told the court Monday, according to Reuters. “He just suddenly took them out. I didn’t ask him to.”

Wa Lone, 32, said he and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, had been arrested upon leaving the restaurant — before they could even look at the documents.

The authorities say the papers contained secret information and have charged the journalists, who are both Myanmar natives, with violating the country’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act. They face up to 14 years in prison if convicted.

The journalists have pleaded not guilty, and their legal team says they were entrapped by the police.

In May, Naing Lin, a police lance corporal, testified that he had met the two journalists but denied giving them anything, initiating the meeting or traveling to it with another officer.

But a police captain, Moe Yan Naing, told the court in April that a more senior officer had ordered Naing Lin to plant documents on Wa Lone as a way of setting a trap for him.

“I am revealing the truth, because police of any rank must maintain their own integrity,” Moe Yan Naing told reporters after the April court hearing. “It is true that they were set up.” He was later sentenced in secret to a year in prison for an unspecified violation of the police disciplinary code.

Kyaw Soe Oo, the other jailed Reuters journalist, was expected to testify on Tuesday. A verdict is expected in a few weeks.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested in December while investigating the September massacre of 10 Rohingya Muslims in the village of Inn Din in the western state of Rakhine. The massacre was part of a campaign of violence by Myanmar’s army and Buddhist mobs that drove hundreds of thousands of Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh.

The violence has been widely characterized as ethnic cleansing, prompting many around the world to wonder why Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who became the country’s de facto leader in 2016, did not stop it.

“No country and leader in modern times has risen to the top and plunged to the bottom of world respect so quickly,” The Bangkok Post, a newspaper in neighboring Thailand, said in an editorial Monday. “In just a year, Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar have gone from respect to disfavor in most of the world.”

The Myanmar government has denied suggestions that it committed genocide against the Rohingya.

As for the Reuters reporters, Suu Kyi told the Japanese broadcaster NHK last month that they had not been arrested in connection with their coverage of what she called “the Rakhine issue.”

But reporters in Myanmar regard the trial as another low point for a profession that has long been under siege in the country.

Under a ruling military junta, journalism in Myanmar was subjected for decades to oversight by a national censorship office, known euphemistically as the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division.

Some reporters were optimistic when the Myanmar government said in 2012 that it would no longer censor private publications. The country’s chief censor vowed at the time that there would be “no U-turn” on the policy shift.

But optimism faded as the government began arresting journalists from domestic media outlets for reports that it deemed too sensitive. And the arrest of the two Reuters journalists last year has put the country’s diminishing press freedom in a harsh international spotlight.

“This outrageous ruling affirms that politics rather than the law or evidence are what matters in this case,” Shawn Crispin, the senior Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, an advocacy group based in New York, said in a statement last week, after the journalists were formally charged.

“The only way to reverse the damage is to release Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo immediately,” he added.

U Myint Kyaw, a member of the Myanmar Press Council, said he believed the Home Affairs Ministry was pursuing the case against the Reuters reporters to intimidate other journalists who might consider pursuing sensitive investigations.

The case was troubling proof, he added, that Suu Kyi’s government, which is still dominated by the military, has no more respect for democratic norms than the military junta once did.

“Both the military and the government have the same eyes,” he said.

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