Myanmar cops charge Reuters reporters under Official Secrets Act

Leslie Hanson
January 12, 2018

Calls grew on Tuesday for the release of two Reuters journalists in Myanmar who are facing accusations of breaching the country's Official Secrets Act, with former U.S. President Bill Clinton urging that they be freed immediately. Family members have said the two told them they were arrested nearly immediately after being handed some documents by the officers they had gone to meet.

The case has brought widespread condemnation, both inside and outside the country, and comes at a time that journalists inside Myanmar are feeling increasingly under threat, amid a series of high profile arrests of reporters in the past year, as Myanmar's government and military tackles with worldwide criticism for its handling of the crisis in Rakhine State.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have been held since 12 December 2017, when they were arrested immediately after being handed documents by two "mysterious policemen" they met in a Yangon restaurant.

The ministry said they "illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media".

After a half-hour session, the case was adjourned until January 23, when bail arguments will be heard. Several had the message "journalism is not a crime" or "release the arrested journalists now" on their T-shirts.

The case has cast a spotlight on Myanmar's troubled transition to democracy after almost five decades of military rule. However, the NLD civilian government could, in principle, have chosen not to seek charges. They include 730 children below the age of 5.

In a statement released Wednesday, the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar said the "disappointed by today's decision".

Human rights group Amnesty International also called for their immediate release and for freedom of speech to be respected.

Criticism within the country has been far more muted and largely confined to Myanmar's journalist community. The Myanmar government's official position on the crisis is that Rohingya are illegal Bengali immigrants.

"The NLD government is firmly committed to freedom of expression".

Phil Robertson of the group Human Rights Watch said that "if Aung San Suu Kyi and her government really cared about democratic reforms and governance, they could use their parliamentary majority to quickly reform this antiquated colonial law and bring it into compliance with worldwide human rights standards". The two journalists are now detained at Insein Prison, reportedly with the general prison population. "We reiterate our call for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo's immediate and unconditional release".

The trial follows a year filled with clampdowns on press freedom in Myanmar.

"The secretary-general has repeated and will continue to repeat his concern at the erosion of press freedom in Myanmar and calling on the worldwide community to do everything to secure the journalists' release and freedom of the press", said United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric. Earlier that evening, the two journalists attended a dinner with police officials near the Battalion 8 compound north of Yangon.

In June, the editor and a columnist at local newspaper The Voice were charged with defamation for satirizing the military.

"For democracy to succeed and flourish, journalists must be able to do their jobs".

Arriving shortly after 10am, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were bundled through a media scrum into the courtroom.

Lawi Weng, The Irrawaddy journalist who spent two months in jail under the colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act, expressed the same hope.

The most recent high profile case regarding the Official Secrets Act came in 2014, when the now-defunct Unity Journal ran a front page story claiming to have exposed a secret chemical weapons factory run by the military in central Myanmar.

The Government of Myanmar has severely restricted independent media access to northern Rakhine State since October 2016, when attacks by Rohingya militants prompted Myanmar-Army led "clearance operations" against Rohingya civilians in northern Rakhine State.

Other reports by Iphone Fresh

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