Aung San Suu Kyi, the State Counsellor of Myanma. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)
Myanmar government leader Aung San Suu Kyi says the jailing of two Reuters journalists has nothing to do with freedom of expression and they can appeal their seven-year sentences.

Yesterday, Suu Kyi referred to the colonial-era law under which they were charged. “They were not jailed because they were journalists, they were jailed because the court has decided they have broken the Official Secrets Act,” she said at a conference of the World Economic Forum in Hanoi.

She made her comments in response to a question from a forum moderator who asked whether she felt comfortable about the reporters being jailed.

The journalists, Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were convicted on official-secrets charges last week in a landmark case that has raised questions about Myanmar’s progress towards democracy.

The two reporters, who had pleaded not guilty, were investigating the killing of 10 villagers from the Muslim Rohingya minority by the Myanmar security forces at the time of their arrest. The military later acknowledged the killings and said it had punished several soldiers.

The UN, human rights and press freedom groups, and various governments criticised the convictions. US Vice President Mike Pence called for their release.

Suu Kyi questioned whether people were aware of details of the case. “I wonder if many people have read the summary of the judgment, which had nothing to do with freedom of expression; it had to do with an Official Secrets Act,” she said. “If we believe in the rule of law, they have every right to appeal the judgment and to point out why the judgment was wrong.”

Government spokesperson Zaw Htay was not immediately available to comment on Suu Kyi’s remarks. He said last week the court was independent and followed due process.

Reuters said in a statement: "We continue to believe Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo did not violate Myanmar's espionage law, and at no point were they engaged in activity to hurt their country."

During eight months of hearings, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo testified that two policemen they had not met before handed them papers rolled up in a newspaper during a meeting at a Yangon restaurant on December 12. They said that almost immediately afterwards they were bundled into a car by plainclothes officers.

On February 1, a police witness said under cross-examination that information in the documents had already been published in newspapers. In April, a prosecution witness testified that a senior officer had ordered subordinates to plant secret documents on Wa Lone to “trap” the reporter.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said Suu Kyi was wrong when she spoke about the verdict. "She fails to understand that real rule of law means respect for evidence presented in court, actions brought based on clearly defined and proportionate laws, and independence of the judiciary.” Reuters