Myanmar Seeks up to 14 Years Prison Sentence for Reuters Reporters Covering Rohingya
Myanmar police have formally charged two Reuters journalists for breaching a colonial-era secrecy law that carries up to 14 years in jail.
Myanmar police have formally charged two Reuters journalists on Wednesday for breaching a colonial-era secrecy law that carries up to 14 years in jail, despite continuous calls for their immediate release.
Myanmar nationals Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, were arrested a month ago under the Official Secrets Act after they allegedly were given classified documents by two policemen over dinner.
The pair had been reporting on the military campaign in the northern Rakhine state that has forced some 655,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee over the border to Bangladesh since August, violence the U.N. has condemned as ethnic cleansing.
The issue is incendiary inside Myanmar, where authorities deny any wrongdoing during an army crackdown on militants from the Muslim minority.
A police officer “filed the case to charge under the state secret (Official Secrets) act, section 3.1(c),” a district judge told the court.
The section punishes anyone who “obtains, collects, records or publishes… any official document or information” which could be “useful to an enemy.”
The pair will return to the court on January 23 for legal arguments, when the bench will decide whether to accept the case under Myanmar’s arcane legal system.
“They arrested us and took action against us because we were trying to reveal the truth," Wa Lone told reporters as he and Kyaw Soe Oo were led out of the court and back to Yangon's Insein prison.
This is #Myanmar, 2018.
Journalism in NOT a crime.https://t.co/rnBD2FOTX7
— Lotte Leicht (@LotteLeicht1) January 10, 2018
Emotive scenes gripped the Yangon courthouse with the journalists’ family members in tears and the reporters issuing desperate pleas before being led back to detention.
“Please tell the people to protect our journalists,” Kyaw Soe Oo shouted to the court. His colleague Wa Lone said his wife was pregnant adding: “I’m trying to be strong.”
The case has shocked Myanmar’s embattled press corps. Journalists covering Wednesday’s proceedings wore black in protest against their arrest, carrying banners proclaiming “Journalism is not a crime”.
“We applied for bail but the prosecutors rejected it,” the journalists’ lawyer Khin Maung Zaw told AFP. “So we are going to give arguments in detail in the next trial.”
Reuters insists its reporters have done nothing wrong, while their families have suggested the pair were set up.
The U.S. and E.U. have led global calls for the journalists to be freed, while Amnesty International late Tuesday repeated its appeal for their immediate release.
“They have done absolutely nothing but carrying out their legitimate work as journalists,” said James Gomez, Amnesty International’s Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
This week, former U.S. president Bill Clinton also weighed in on the issue.
“A free press is critical to a free society-the detention of journalists anywhere is unacceptable,” he tweeted on Monday. “The Reuters journalists being held in Myanmar should be released immediately.”
Myanmar prosecutor seeks Official Secrets Act charges against two Reuters reporters. The full story: https://t.co/qkQdU5wLWp International reactions: https://t.co/a1SMAQVt0F pic.twitter.com/Q2nezeAVqB
— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) January 10, 2018
The case has cast a spotlight on Myanmar’s troubled transition to democracy after nearly five decades of military rule. It touches on both slumping press freedom and the Rohingya crisis, two issues that have raised questions about the country’s ability to shake off the legacy of junta rule.
Much of the Buddhist-majority population supports the army in what it calls a justified campaign against Rohingya militants after attacks against border guard police killed about a dozen last year. The military has severely restricted access to Rakhine to reporters, aid groups and observers.
A slew of legal cases against journalists have compounded disappointment among those hoping the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi would usher in a new era of freedom. Her administration shares power with an army that still controls all security policy and other key levers of government.
Ms. Suu Kyi’s time in office has also been dominated by the Rohingya crisis, with criticism pouring in from around the globe over her refusal to denounce the army’s crackdown and allow in international investigators.
"The charges filed against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo represent a giant step backward for #pressfreedom in Myanmar. Such high-profile legal harassment will inevitably cause other journalists to self-censor their reporting on important stories." Shawn Crispin of @CPJAsia
— Committee to Protect Journalists (@pressfreedom) January 10, 2018