Theresa May calls for release of journalists jailed in Myanmar

Prime Minister Theresa May is extremely disappointed with the sentencing of two Reuters journalists in Myanmar to seven years in prison and has called for their immediate release.

A Myanmar court sentenced Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo over illegal possession of official documents while reporting on violence against Rohingya Muslims.

Both pleaded not guilty to violating the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, punishable by up to 14 years in prison, contending they were framed by police.

Reuters journalist Wa Lone. Credit: AP

A spokesman for the Prime Minister said of the situation in Myanmar: “We are extremely disappointed with this verdict and sentencing, and we call for the journalists to be released immediately.

“In any democracy, journalists must be free to carry out their jobs without fear or intimidation.

“This verdict has undermined freedom of the media in Myanmar.”

The UK’s ambassador to Myanmar, Dan Chugg, who was in court for the verdict, said the case has “struck a hammer-blow to the rule of law in Myanmar”.

He said diplomats who attended the trial believe the judges ignored evidence and Myanmar’s laws.

The journalists said while giving evidence that they did not solicit or knowingly possess any secret documents.

A police officer who said his commander had ordered documents be planted on the journalists was subsequently jailed for a year.

The case has drawn worldwide attention as an example of how press freedom is suffering under the government of Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Both journalists said they suffered from harsh treatment during their initial interrogations.

Their several appeals for release on bail were rejected.

Wa Lone’s wife, Pan Ei Mon, gave birth to the couple’s first child in Yangon on August 10, but Wa Lone has not yet seen his daughter.

The two journalists had been reporting last year on the brutal crackdown by security forces on the Rohingya in Myanmar's Rakhine state.

Kyaw Soe Oo escorted by polices as the journalists leave court. Credit: AP

Some 700,000 Rohingya fled to neighbouring Bangladesh to escape the violence targeting them after attacks by Rohingya militants killed a dozen members of the security forces.

Investigators working for the UN’s top human rights body said last week that genocide charges should be brought against senior Myanmar military officers over the crackdown.

The accusation of genocide was rejected by Myanmar's government, but is the most serious official recommendation for prosecution so far.

Also last week, Facebook banned Myanmar's powerful military chief and 19 other individuals and organisations from its site to prevent the spread of hate and misinformation in connection with the Rohingya crisis.

Dozens of journalists and pro-democracy activists marched Saturday in Yangon, Myanmar's biggest city, in support of the reporters.

But in the country at large, with an overwhelming Buddhist majority, there is widespread prejudice against the Rohingya, and in the government and military, there is near-xenophobic sensitivity to foreign criticism.