This coming Tuesday, the Supreme Court of Myanmar is set to make a final decision on a case concerning two Reuters journalists who have been detained in the country since December of 2017. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested supposedly for having obtained classified documents which compromised state secrets, but the events surrounding their imprisonment suggest that the full story is less straightforward. Their case is already being considered a legal landmark for the freedom of press, but regardless of how the court rules, the proceedings have justifiably brought under scrutiny the challenges faced by democracy in Myanmar as well as countries in the surrounding region.
When they were first imprisoneda little under one and a half years ago, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were in the middle of investigating a major act of violence carried out by the military of Myanmar. This incident—the massacre of ten Rohingya men and boys—was published by Reuters even after two of their reporters were taken into custody, and the supporting evidence was so strong that even the government of Myanmar was forced to acknowledge the act. The journalists, however, continued to be detained under the pretense of violating the Official Secrets Act—a law dating back to the colonial era which prohibits the acquisition of classified official documents. However, lawyers representing Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have argued that according to interviews and other evidence, both journalists had been set up by police officials, who had invited the pair over for dinner before giving them the documents that would lead to their capture almost immediately after the meeting.
Various foreign organizations have spoken out against the treatment of the Reuters journalists and the threat it represents to press freedom, such as the U.S. Embassy and the European Union’s delegation in Yangon, where the reporters were arrested. The actions of the police in Myanmar were largely seen as an attack on the freedom of the press, and by extension on the essential virtues of democracy. As Ozan V. Varole notes in “Stealth Authoritarianism,” states masquerading as democracies may suppress the free media in ways which are more subtle than shutting media outlets down outright, such as by taking on individuals under the cover of archaic or unnecessary laws applied to the fullest extent. This allows for authoritarian leaning governments to take on any kind of opposition before it even has a chance to rise, under the guise of the law.
The state of affairs for journalism looks to be dire in Myanmar as well as other countries nearby. In the Philippines, reporter Maria Ressa, who has been critical of President Rodrigo Duterte and his administration, was once again been arrested before being released on bail. On the other hand, however, it seems that some of the guardians of democracy like international diplomatic groups seem to be at least functioning to some degree of their capacity and bringing attention to anti-democratic actions taken by governments in various countries. Although stealth authoritarianism may indeed be chipping away at the democratic base of a state, keeping a keen eye on it makes it much less likely to have a lasting or irreparable effect in a certain community.