Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were found guilty of breaching Myanmar’s secrecy laws by obtaining confidential documents. They were arrested in December 2017 while working on a Reuters investigative report titled “Massacre in Myanmar: How Myanmar forces burned, looted and killed in a remote village.” The report focused on the massacre of 10 Rohingya men by Myanmar troops and Buddhist villagers.
The journalists say they were entrapped by police, who passed them the documents before arresting them shortly after.
Critics say Suu Kyi, who is Myanmar’s State Counsellor (effectively prime minister), is complicit in their jailing.
Bill Richardson, a veteran U.S. politician, diplomat and former confidante of Suu Kyi’s, said he tried to raise the issue of the journalists’ plight whilst he was a member of an international panel set up to advise on the Rohingya crisis, but Suu Kyi dismissed his concerns.
Suu Kyi first canceled a meeting between Richardson and a senior minister to discuss the journalists’ case, Richardson said, before angrily referring to the journalists as “traitors.”
“Freedom of the press is a bedrock of democracy, a view I once thought Aung San Suu Kyi shared,” Richardson wrote on Twitter. “Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo deserve to be at home with their families, not locked up for exposing the truth and made an example of to intimidate others.”
Richardson quit his position on the panel in January, slamming it as a “whitewash” and “cheerleading operation” for Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her role in championing democracy in Myanmar, where she lived under house arrest for many years while the country was ruled by a military government.
WATCH: Myanmar trial of Reuters journalists was a ‘setup’ says Reuters news chief
Aaron Connelly, director of the Southeast Asia Project at the Lowy Institute in Australia, said Suu Kyi has the power to issue an amnesty to the journalists, but has declined to use it.
“For months, aides to Aung San Suu Kyi have strongly implied that she would instruct the president to grant an amnesty to Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo at the conclusion of the judicial process,” Connelly said.
The journalists’ sentencing comes amid intensified attacks on free speech, according to Human Rights Watch, with Suu Kyi’s government ramping up laws designed to stifle reporters and activists.
“The outrageous convictions of the Reuters journalists show Myanmar courts’ willingness to muzzle those reporting on military atrocities,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
“These sentences mark a new low for press freedom and further backsliding on rights under Aung San Suu Kyi’s government.”
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The sentencing comes amid mounting pressure on Suu Kyi’s government over a security crackdown sparked by attacks by Rohingya Muslim insurgents on security forces in west Myanmar’s Rakhine State in August 2017.
Nearly 25,000 Rohingyas have been killed in the conflict, according to a recent report by the Ontario International Development Agency.
Suu Kyi’s refusal to act on the crisis has led several organizations and governments to withdraw awards handed to her for her role in championing democracy in Myanmar, where she lived under house arrest for many years while the country was ruled by a military government.
However, she still has her Nobel Prize, with the Norwegian-based Nobel Committee saying Wednesday that it has no plans to rescind the award.
WATCH: Could the world have done more to stop the Rohingya crisis?
Suu Kyi also remains an honourary Canadian citizen, an honour bestowed upon her by the Stephen Harper government in 2007. In recent years, there have been growing calls from Canadians for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to revoke the distinction.
Trudeau wrote a letter to Suu Kyi last year, in which he condemned the atrocities committed against Rohingyas and said that it is with “disappointment and dismay that your fellow Canadians have witnessed your continuing silence in the face of the brutal oppression of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim people.”
However, he didn’t address the prospect of stripping Suu Kyi of honourary citizenship.
The journalists’ sentencing is only the latest in a slew of incidents of journalists being prosecuted for criticizing Myanmar’s military or government, according to Human Rights Watch.
Myanmar is ranked 137th out of 180 countries in press freedom, according to the 2018 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders.
The country’s government has grown increasingly brazen in its efforts to influence news reporting.
On Thursday, Suu Kyi’s deputy minister of information called for “cooperation” from Myanmar media, telling national news network DVB that it was important for journalists to “carry our proper Myanmar narrative among the international community.”