When Reporters Are Arrested

How can justice and human rights be safeguarded?

Three years after a celebrated transition from military rule to a fragile new democracy, the East Asian country of Myanmar is in the headlines again. This September, as the United Nations accused Myanmar’s military of genocide against the Rohingya minority, Myanmar’s government jailed two local journalists investigating the violence.

Since mass killings of civilians, rapes, and the destruction of villages began in 2017, thousands of Rohingya have died and more than 700,000 others have fled to neighboring Bangladesh. The two jailed journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were reporting on the crisis for the international news agency Reuters and were the first to document state involvement in a massacre of ten Rohingya Muslim men and boys in September 2017. They were framed by the police, arrested, and detained for eight months before being convicted of violating Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act and sentenced to seven years in prison.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are not the only journalists who have been detained, arrested, or even murdered in recent years. Their story can focus students’ attention on the ongoing plight of the Rohingya, threats to press freedom worldwide, and the importance of journalism to a free society. This lesson idea guides students to explore the following questions:

  • What role do journalists play in safeguarding justice and human rights?
  • What happens when journalists cannot do their jobs?

Prompt Students to Evaluate the Importance of Journalism

Begin a class discussion with the following prompt using the Wraparound teaching strategy:

The job of a journalist is to . . .

As students share their responses, record them on the board or a piece of paper.

Propose the following statement to students using the Barometer teaching strategy:

A free press is essential to justice and the protection of human rights.
(Strongly Agree/Agree/Disagree/Strongly Disagree)

Covering the “Story”

Select one or all of the following sources to introduce students to the sentencing of the Reuters journalists in Myanmar. (For broader context about the Rohingya and the refugee crisis, refer to the Facing History and Ourselves lesson Responding To The Rohingya Crisis.):

As students read and/or watch one or more of the news stories above, have them respond to the following questions:

  • Who are Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo?
  • What story or stories were the reporters covering?
  • Why was Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s work considered illegal by the Myanmar government?
  • Why have they been imprisoned? With what crime were they charged?

Journal Reflection: Ask students to reflect on Knut Ostby’s tweet after Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s sentencing. He is United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar. On September 2, 2018, Knut Ostby tweeted,

A free press is essential for peace, justice and human rights for all.

Consider using the following approaches to structure students’ responses:

  • Sentence Stems: The imprisonment of journalists reporting on atrocities in Myanmar makes me feel . . . ; This quote makes me wonder. . . ; If I could talk with Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo (the jailed reporters) or the judge who sentenced the reporters to seven years in prison I would want to say/I would want to ask . . .
  • Freewriting: Give students a defined amount of time to write in silence about any aspect of the this issue that is on their mind.

Visualizing a “Free Press” in the World and Its Relationship to Human Rights and Democracy

If you have access to classroom computers or an interactive whiteboard, use Reporters Without Borders’ 2018 World Press Freedom Index or Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press 2017 to explore the ranking of different countries such as the United States, Myanmar, and other countries the class has been studying, to learn how they rate with respect to journalists’ freedom. Evaluate if countries have gained or lost freedoms. Alternatively, you could provide print copies of the maps.

Committee to Protect Journalists has an interactive map of journalists imprisoned in 2017.

Have students reflect on patterns they observe about countries with democratic governments or a lack of democracy and the health of their press. (For additional resources on this topic, refer to the Facing History and Ourselves lesson Free Press Makes Democracy Work.)

Exit Card: After presenting a global view of the freedom of the press, ask students to briefly respond to the following question on a small piece of paper, like an index card, and hand it in before leaving class for the day:

What is the relationship between reporters being able to do their jobs freely and democracy?

For more teaching ideas and background on the Rohingya, view the lesson Understanding The Conditions That Lead to "Ethnic Cleansing".

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