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Imprisoned reporters who revealed Rohingya massacres ‘guilty of committing journalism,’ Reuters chief says

Two Reuters reporters were sentenced to seven years in prison in Myanmar Monday on charges of the illegal possession of official documents. But Reuters editor-in-chief Stephen Adler says “it was a complete setup.” The journalists had been reporting on government led massacres of Rohingya villagers. Nick Schifrin talks with Adler about trying to get them released.

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  • John Yang:

    Today, a judge in Myanmar sentenced two Reuters reporters to prison terms. They were charged with illegal possession of official documents.

    As Nick Schifrin from reports, they had been reporting on the government-led massacres of Rohingya villagers.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    This morning, Wa Lone walked into court as a journalist. He walked out a convicted criminal and told a phalanx of his former colleagues his conviction eroded his country's rule of law.

  • Wa Lone (through translator):

    They're obviously threatening our democracy and destroying freedom of the press in our country.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    He and his colleague Kyaw Soe Oo were bundled into the back of a police van, sentenced to seven years in prison just for doing their jobs, says British Ambassador Dan Chugg.

  • Dan Chugg:

    We think that in a democracy, journalists should be allowed to practice their jobs without intimidation, without fear. And this case has very much undermined freedom of the media in Myanmar.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Last year, Wa Lone was in Yangon, and Kyaw Soe Oo was collecting journalism awards when the two began investigating an exodus.

    Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fled for their lives into Bangladesh. Rohingya are Myanmar natives and have long been targeted by Myanmar's Buddhist military. But last year, the Myanmar military was accused of setting fire to and pillaging Muslim villages with what the U.N. calls genocidal intent.

    And in the village of Inn Din, the Reuters journalists discovered photos of 10 Muslims forced to watch Buddhists neighbors dig a shallow grave. Soon after, they were all dead, shot by Myanmar troops, the first massacre reconstructed with photos and testimony from both victims and Buddhist villagers.

    The government refused to consider their work journalism. Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was supposed to lead Myanmar's transition from decades of military rule to a burgeoning democracy, but the government pursued the charges against the journalists as she defended the military's crackdown.

  • Aung San Suu Kyi:

    We are the ones who must in the long term preserve the stability and security of our country.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But human rights advocates say today's sentencing isn't about stability or security. It's about silencing criticism and is a parody of justice, says Reporters Without Borders' Daniel Bastard.

  • Daniel Bastard:

    This very heavy sentence of seven years against the two generalist is a clear and sad sign that the transition, the democratic transition in Myanmar, is going to an end.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Kyaw Soe Oo's wife used to take their 2-year-old daughter to court and get a kiss from her father. Today, mother and daughter cried outside court, as he and Wa Lone were sentenced to spend more time in prison than the soldiers whose crimes they documented.

    And with me now is Stephen Adler, the editor in chief in Reuters, who joins us from New York.

    Stephen Adler, thank you very much.

    The judge today accused your reporters of breaching the Official Secrets Act. Did they breach the Official Secrets Act?

  • Stephen J. Adler:

    Absolutely not. They violated no law. And, in fact, they did absolutely nothing wrong.

    They are guilty of committing journalism.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And they and their lawyers have told a specific story about how they ended up in court. Do you believe that they were actually set up by the police?

  • Stephen J. Adler:

    Yes, absolutely.

    And it's not just the story that they told or that the lawyers told. A police captain testifying for the prosecution admitted under oath in court that the whole thing was a setup, that there'd been a meeting to discuss how to set them up, how to provide them with documents that were wrapped up inside a local newspaper, and what to do, and the fact that they had to be arrested when they left the restaurant where they were meeting.

    So it was clearly a setup. Also, the testimony of the police was completely non-credible. They had ridiculous locations where they — where they claim the rest occurred. One of the people who was supposedly at the arrest said that he had notes of the arrest, but he had burnt them, so he didn't have them in court.

    And another one wrote his script on his hand, so he wouldn't forget what to say. This was something where there was just no ambiguity.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And do you think the judge ignored some of that evidence to the contrary, and do you believe that this conviction was preordained?

  • Stephen J. Adler:

    Well, there's no evidence that rule of law was involved here, no evidence that a typical due process trial was occurring.

    This did seem like something that just didn't comport with what anybody would view as a rule of law case. So we were not at all surprised at the result, because they shouldn't have been arrested, and they shouldn't have been charged, and they certainly shouldn't have been convicted.

    So there was just no evidence. And there were diplomats from many countries in court. There was no ambiguity about it. Nobody disagreed. There's no debate. Everybody understood that this was a complete setup.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Not everyone, of course, believed that.

    Aung San Suu Kyi is the de facto leader of Myanmar. And she has defended the court in this case. Do you believe that she has been an impediment to the release of the journalists?

  • Stephen J. Adler:

    Well, I do say that every outside observer who has been studying this trial is absolutely clear that not only are they not guilty, but that the trial was a setup, in many ways a sham.

    As to what the government's involvement or position is, I think now is the time for us to truly come to understand that, because now is the time. The trial is over, and the government is in the position to do something about it. The government is in the position to release them, to free them.

    So now's the time we're going to find out to what extent the government is prepared to, first of all, undo this wrong, but also reestablish their position of some respect in the global community. I think everybody's watching. Diplomats from all over the world have been in the courtroom, have been participating.

    Secretary Pompeo went to talk to the foreign minister. Nikki Haley at the U.N. spoke very, very strongly on our behalf, on behalf of our journalists in the Security Council. So I think now is the time to find out what the Myanmar government actually intends to do.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Do you have any notion that the government would consider commuting their sentences or Aung San Suu Kyi could be involved in trying to reverse this decision?

  • Stephen J. Adler:

    I have no evidence at all. But I know that we are going to work very hard over — starting now to do everything we can to get them released. And we think there are opportunities to get them released.

    And it's our job, and we are absolutely committed to trying to get them out.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And have you spoken to Aung San Suu Kyi, or has there been any communication with her? And has she been an impediment in this case?

  • Stephen J. Adler:

    I don't want to personalize this.

    And we have done a lot of back-channel diplomacy work. And I don't want to compromise anybody who may have done one thing or another. But what I can say is, we're not trying to make this a personal thing. We're trying to help the process go forward, so that they can be released. And that is our only goal.

    We're not taking sides in any conflict. We're not anti-government. We don't take positions as Reuters. We just try to report the news. So in this situation, we're just trying to get them out. That's all we're trying to do.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And you are still reporting the news.

    What will the impact of this case be on your ability and your desire to cover Myanmar and the audience going story in Myanmar and Bangladesh?

  • Stephen J. Adler:

    Well, we published the story that they didn't want us to publish, even after our journalists were imprisoned. We published the massacre of the 10 Rohingya Muslim in the village of Inn Din.

    And we continue to do investigative pieces about exactly how various of the attacks and massacres have occurred and what's going — going on in the refugee camps. And we absolutely intend to do that. We have not been intimidated. We have not been deterred, and we won't be. We think this is a very important story.

    The only reason why there is to do important stories. The only reason an organization like ours goes to dangerous places is not to court danger, but to get great stories, to get important stories. And we think this is an important story. And we're going to continue to cover it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Stephen Adler, editor in chief of Reuters, thank you very much.

  • Stephen J. Adler:

    Thank you.

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