HONG KONG — Vice President Mike Pence expressed support on Tuesday for two Reuters journalists in Myanmar who were convicted there a day earlier, adding to a growing chorus of outrage over a case that is widely seen as a bellwether of Myanmar’s crackdown on the news media.
The journalists, U Wa Lone and U Kyaw Soe Oo, were sentenced on Monday to seven years in prison after being convicted of violating Myanmar’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act, prompting outrage from journalists, foreign diplomats and human rights groups around the world.
In consecutive Twitter posts on Tuesday, Mr. Pence said that he was “deeply troubled” by the ruling and that the Myanmar government should reverse it. He said the two men had merely been “doing their job reporting on the atrocities being committed on the Rohingya people,” a reference to mass killings and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya ethnic minority near Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh.
Nikki R. Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, also spoke out on Tuesday against the verdict, using language that echoed how human rights groups have described the two reporters’ trial. Ms. Haley said the men were “in prison for telling the truth.”
But some Twitter users said it was ironic that Mr. Pence was expressing support for press freedom in an era when the president himself routinely vilifies the news media as the “enemy of the people.” Threats and taunting by his supporters have prompted news networks to hire security guards for some correspondents.
Mr. Wa Lone, 32, and Mr. Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were arrested and detained last December, just after a police corporal gave them two rolled-up pieces of paper at a restaurant in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. They had been investigating a massacre that September in far-western Myanmar of 10 Rohingya Muslim villagers.
The reporters’ defenders say their only crime was documenting the mass killings and ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya by soldiers and Buddhist mobs in far-western Rakhine State that began in August 2017. And during the trial, a police captain told the court that the arrests were a setup.
But the captain was punished for his testimony with a year in prison, and the judge in the case eventually ruled that the Reuters journalists intended to harm the country by sharing its secrets.
At a news conference on Tuesday, lawyers for the journalists said they would do everything in their power to free their clients, who can still appeal or request pardons.
The journalists’ wives, who insisted on the men’s innocence, said they were surprised by the verdict.
“They were doing their jobs as journalists,” said Chit Su Win, Mr. Kyaw Soe Oo’s wife.
Mr. Wa Lone’s wife, Pan Ei Mon, who gave birth to the couple’s first child last month, expressed disappointment over comments about the case by Myanmar’s de facto leader, the Nobel Peace laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi — “the person who we really admired for our whole lives.”
In an interview before the verdict with the Japanese broadcaster NHK, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi said the reporters had been arrested not for covering what she called “the Rakhine issue,” but for breaking the Official Secrets Act. She said that a decision on their guilt or innocence would be up to the judiciary.
Ms. Pan Ei Mon said: “Since I became pregnant, I stayed strong on the hope that Wa Lone would be released. After yesterday’s verdict, it feels like my hopes have been destroyed.”
Stephen J. Adler, the Reuters president and editor in chief, said Monday in a statement that the verdict against the journalists was “designed to silence their reporting and intimidate the press.”
“This is a major step backward in Myanmar’s transition to democracy, cannot be squared with the rule of law or freedom of speech and must be corrected by the Myanmar government as a matter of urgency,” he said.
Yet despite all the recent pressure, as well as recent sanctions by the United States against some of Myanmar’s top generals, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has declined to criticize the military campaign against the Rohingya, much less call for the reporters’ release.
Many people in Myanmar consider the Rohingya to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations.