NADIA ALJOJO WRITES – After being accused of breaching Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act, two Reuters reporters, Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, were detained by police in December and have been held in custody since. The two reporters had been working on covering the military crackdown on insurgents in the western state of Rakhine which, according to UN estimates, has caused over 680,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee and seek refuge in neighboring Bangladesh. The UN and the US have categorized this violence as ethnic cleansing, a very serious allegation which Myanmar rejects.
Late last year, the two reporters were investigating the killing of 10 Rohingya men during an army crackdown. The Reuters’ probing prompted the government accusation that the two allegedly possessed secret government documents. There have been preliminary hearings since January and, according to Reuters, the defense lawyer representing them, Khin Maung Zaw, called for their release and submitted several newspaper articles, which have been published prior to the arrest, as evidence that proves the so-called secret information was already in the public domain. Even so, all of Zaw’s efforts to secure the reporters’ release have failed.
As of March 18th, human rights lawyer Amal Clooney officially joined Zaw in representing the two reporters. Celebrity Clooney’s involvement has elevated international interest and reaction to the case. Top UN and EU officials as well as nations such as the U.S., Canada, and several European countries have called for the reporters’ release, as their incarceration has been characterized as an attack against free reporting and journalism. In a report released by Clooney’s office, Doughty Street Chambers, Clooney stated that the results of the case “will tell us a lot about Myanmar’s commitment to the rule of law and freedom of speech.”
Clooney’s involvement in the case has sparked both support and questions from those who have been following the case. Many are confident that Clooney’s involvement will aid in the release of the reporters; however, as outlined in an opinion article published in the Myanmar Times, her involvement raises the question of the necessity of her participation. Alice Dawkis, a researcher from the Australian National University, argues that Clooney’s involvement reinforces the ill-informed assumption that local lawyers are incapable of successfully performing in their positions. Dawkis insist that Clooney’s involvement blurs the hardships, successes and efforts of local lawyers and adds that “we too easily forget the toils and silent victories of Myanmar lawyers when our eyes turn, star-struck, to a foreign import from London.”
Considering that the journalists have yet to be released after being detained for about 150 days, family members of the reporters, Reuters, and everyone involved will do anything necessary to ensure their release. The report released by Clooney’s office outlines Reuter’s official confidence in Clooney’s involvement as they argue that her contribution “greatly strengthens our international legal expertise and allows us to broaden efforts” to aid in their release. Reuters has this about right.