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Menendez Statement for the Record on Reuters Journalists Detained in Burma

NEWARK – Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, submitted the following statement for the Senate record urging the Government of Burma to drop the charges against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, two Reuters reporters who have been arrested on account of their journalistic efforts and face up to 14 years in prison.

“Today I rise to highlight the profound injustice of the formal charging and ongoing detention of two democracy defenders in Burma. Reuter’s reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested in December 2017 for investigating a massacre of Rohingya villagers by Burmese security forces. The Burmese authorities’ arrest and charges against them are a clear attempt to silence the truth. Freedom of the press is a foundational pillar of democracy and an indispensable check on government overreach. Journalists who risk their lives to expose the truth and should be celebrated not incarcerated.

Defenders of democracy are increasingly under threat across the globe. Every day, journalists like Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo risk their freedom and even their lives to provide honest, fact-based information, and advance accountability. The efforts of truth tellers and defenders of democratic values to expose abuses of power are viewed often as an existential threat to the governments, security forces, and non-state actors they expose.  In retaliation, those in power abuse their positions and accuse those truth tellers of subverting the state and of reporting false information. In 2017 alone, 262 journalists were imprisoned for their reporting. Of those 262 journalists, 195 were charged with anti-state and false news reporting.

In the case of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, the Burmese government technically used the colonial-era Official Secrets Act to charge the pair with obtaining secret state documents. The documents in question were government letters, plans to develop an island, and information about drug seizures. Police officers invited the journalists for dinner to deliver the documents and promptly arrested them just moments afterwards.   However, most observers believe the real motivation for their arrest was their investigation into the Burmese security forces massacre of 10 Rohingya Muslims. Charging them under the draconian Official Secrets Act – even after widespread national and international condemnation – is a clear sign that the authorities are intent on silencing critical voices. It also serves as a notice to other journalists working in the country that speaking out comes with serious consequences.

Both Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had reported extensively on the military’s brutal operations in Rakhine State, home to the majority of Burma’s Rohingya population, which forced more than 680,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. Today, they are on trial in Burma and face up to 14 years in prison. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s arrest, like that of so many other journalists in Burma and around the world, demonstrates the danger that journalists face in countries where press freedom is not protected.

I call on the Government of Burma to immediately drop the charges against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo and refrain from their almost daily attacks on press freedom and journalists in Burma. I am deeply alarmed that the Burmese authorities, in another effort silence the truth, have prohibited the very use of the word “Rohingya” in reporting. I commend the decision of Radio Free Asia to refuse to compromise its journalistic integrity or dilute its mission of promoting free press in closed societies by kowtowing to this new directive of the government.  Freedom of the press is part of the bedrock of democracy and it is essential to the maintenance and expansion of democracy in the modern world. We must defend the freedoms of the forcefully silenced, and we must stand up for freedom of the press and these brave defenders of truth.”