As journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo begin seven-year sentences in Myanmar after an appalling conviction under official secrets laws, we at PEN hope that the extensive coverage and statements of outrage at their imprisonment will give them some kind of succour. Freedom of expression groups, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, Index on Censorship and PEN America all see the case as a clear-cut violation of freedom of expression. British Minister Mark Field MP has called for their immediate release (though frustratingly, the British ambassador to Myanmar did not), and UN Special Rapporteurs David Kaye and Yanghee Lee said that the sentencing was a “dark moment” for Myanmar.
But as we know, news cycles move quickly. Soon, a tweet by Donald Trump or a newspaper column by Boris Johnson will haul our attention closer to home. It is crucial that this case does not slip from public consciousness. In this narrow respect, I think Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe could be said to be “lucky”. They were working for the global news agency Reuters, which has used its global reach to relentlessly publicise the case. An early release or pardon, if it ever comes, will be because of persistent campaigning on this case by fellow journalists.
We must remember that not everyone detained under illiberal speech laws has the same international institutional backing. Kyaw Min Swe, editor of Myanmar national newspaper The Voice, remains in prison on charges of defamation, and dozens of people have been prosecuted under the notorious Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, which criminalises “defaming” or “disturbing” another person using a communication network. So when we speak about Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo we must emphasise that their case is not an aberration, but emblematic of a wider free speech problem in Myanmar. Demands for their release must always be accompanied with calls for changes to the law.
But legal reform is also crucial. A frustrating fact about human rights campaigning is that the release of a celebrated political prisoner usually happens not because the law is amended, but on the whim of an authoritarian politician. The power to arbitrarily censor is retained, and anxiety remains among activists and journalists, over what can and cannot be said. Fear and self-censorship persists, and tragically, many other people remain in prison. Presidential pardons rarely extend to equally deserving prisoners who have less of an international profile.
It is a sad irony that one of the people bearing responsibility for the current attack on freedom of expression was herself once the most famous political prisoner in the world. When Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 2010, many of us hoped that Myanmar was set on an inevitable trajectory towards democracy. But unfortunately, as figures from an analysis by Free Expression Myanmar show, criminal defamation complaints brought under Article 66d of the Telecommunications Law actually rose in the period after Kyi’s party won power in 2015.
As the former colonial power, we British bear some of the responsibility for the plight of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. The Official Secrets and Criminal Defamation laws that are currently menacing writers in Myanmar all have their roots in British law. We are therefore uniquely placed to set an example by ensuring our own laws are fit for purpose. The UK abolished its own criminal defamation laws in 2009 and revised the civil law of libel in 2013. British ministers should now call on Myanmar to do the same.
More urgently, the Police Service of Northern Ireland must immediately drop its investigation of filmmakers Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey. They are accused of handling confidential police ombudsman documents, while making a film about the 1994 Loughinisland massacre. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt says he will be visiting Myanmar soon, where he will raise the case of the Reuters journalists. How can he expect anyone there to take his appeals seriously, when Belfast police are chilling public interest journalism in the UK?
In the meantime, we must not let our attention drift. When PEN asks current or former prisoners what an international community of activists and concerned citizens can do to help, the answer is almost always a request that we keep the case in the public eye. International publicity can keep day-to-day abuse by prison authorities in check, and of course puts political pressure on the government to release those detained. Correspondence and messages of support can give strength to a person who might otherwise sink into mental despair.