YANGON (Reuters) – Myanmar prosecutors sought charges on Wednesday against two Reuters reporters under the Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years, the reporters’ lawyer said.
Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, were detained on Dec. 12 after they had been invited to meet police officers over dinner. Family members have said the two told them they were arrested almost immediately after being handed some documents by the officers they had gone to meet.
The two had worked on Reuters coverage of a crisis in the western state of Rakhine, where – according to U.N. estimates – about 655,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled from a fierce military crackdown on militants.
“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 after the 30-minute hearing.
Khin Maung Zaw, a lawyer representing the two journalists, said the charges being sought came under Section 3.1 (c) of the British colonial-era Official Secrets Act.
The act dates back to 1923, when Myanmar, then known as Burma, was a province of British India.
Section 3 covers entering prohibited places, taking images or handling secret official documents that “might be or is intended to be, directly or indirectly, useful to an enemy”.
The Ministry of Information had previously cited police as saying they were “arrested for possessing important and secret government documents related to Rakhine State and security forces”. The ministry has said they “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media”.
The case was adjourned until Jan. 23.
The prosecutor objected to an application for bail, the reporters’ lawyer, Khin Maung Zaw, said. The court took it under consideration and will decide at the next hearing, he said.
The government has said two police officers were also arrested for investigation under suspicion of having violated the Official Secrets Act. It has given no further information on the police arrested.
DRESSED IN BLACK
In the court, Kyaw Soe Oo embraced his wife and held his daughter for a couple of minutes. His daughter began to weep as he was escorted away and had to hand her back to other family members.
Wa Lone’s wife gave him a few small pieces of cake that she had brought.
“I am trying to be strong in everything. I never made any mistake; I never did anything wrong,” Wa Lone said before leaving the court.
Reuters President and Editor-In-Chief Stephen J. Adler said he was extremely disappointed that the authorities were seeking to prosecute the pair.
“We view this as a wholly unwarranted, blatant attack on press freedom. Our colleagues should be allowed to return to their jobs reporting on events in Myanmar. We believe time is of the essence and we continue to call for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s prompt release,” he said.
Observers from the United Nations and from several embassies, including the Netherlands, Australia and Britain.
“We hope that these journalists will get a fair trial and a speedy trial that represents international practices,” the first secretary of the EU mission, Andreas Magnusson, told reporters.
PROTEST OUTSIDE COURT
About 30 journalists were outside the court, most dressed in black as a sign of protest against the arrest of the pair. Several had the message “journalism is not a crime” or “release the arrested journalists now” on their T-shirts.
Police were on duty outside the court, and some areas were cordoned off with barbed wire.
The two were brought to court in a police vehicle and emerged from it smiling, both in handcuffs. Wa Lone gave a thumbs up sign.
Government officials from some of the world’s major nations, including the United States, Britain and Canada, as well as top United Nations officials, have called for the release of the reporters.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton also urged that they be freed immediately.
“A free press is critical to a free society – the detention of journalists anywhere is unacceptable. The Reuters journalists being held in Myanmar should be released immediately,” Clinton said in a Twitter post on Monday.
Clinton was U.S. president for much of the 1990s when the United States pressed Myanmar’s then military rulers to release democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi from years of house arrest.
Suu Kyi won a 2015 election and formed a government in early 2016, although she is barred by the constitution from becoming president.
She has made no public comment on the detention of the two Reuters reporters. The government has denied that their arrests represent an attack on press freedom and Suu Kyi’s spokesman has said the case would be handled according to the law.
(Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Martin Howell)