Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo leave Insein court in a police van in Yangon, Myanmar, July 9, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters

A judge in Yangon formally charged two Reuters journalists on Monday for possessing confidential government documents in the latest blow to press freedom in Myanmar. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, detained for the past seven months during preliminary hearings, will now face trial for allegedly violating Myanmar’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carries a prison sentence of up to 14 years.

The judge decided to proceed to trial despite strong evidence for dismissal – witness accounts pointing to entrapment, indications of police misconduct in the investigation, and prosecution witnesses with contradicting testimonies.

The two journalists were detained in December after meeting with police officers who handed them papers in an apparent setup, since corroborated by several witnesses, including an officer who testified that the police were ordered to “trap” the journalists by planting “secret” documents on them.

The government can arrest us like this, waste our time in the court for many days.... But we want to tell them, right here, that they can never hide the truth.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo

In the months before their arrest, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had been investigating a massacre of 10 Rohingya Muslims by Myanmar security forces in September 2017 in Inn Din village, northern Rakhine State. The massacre was part of the military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing that drove more than 720,000 Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh. Myanmar authorities, who have denied extensive evidence of mass atrocities, appear to have targeted Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo because their reporting threatened the government’s tightly controlled narrative.

“The government can arrest us like this, waste our time in the court for many days, and stop us from being able to write news,” Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo wrote in a letter from prison. “But we want to tell them, right here, that they can never hide the truth.”

After an initial thaw in the country’s long-repressed media environment, the new civilian administration under de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has cracked down on free speech. Since 2016, scores of cases have been filed against journalists and activists for perceived criticism of the government or military under a slew of repressive laws.

The charges against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo for their uncovering of atrocities reflect more than just the dire state of free speech in Myanmar. They show the lengths the government will go to silence and punish those who expose its brutal ways.