PROSECUTORS in Burma (Myanmar) have sought maximum charges against two Reuters reporters charged under the country’s Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum sentence of 14 years imprisonment.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo 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 UN 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 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 Information Ministry 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”.
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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.
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.
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 he 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. The two journalists arrived and left court in handcuffs.
Distraught relatives of Kyaw Soe Oo wailed and reached out to grasp him as the two journalists were driven away from a throng of reporters after the hearing.
The Foreign Correspondents Clubs of Thailand and Hong Kong released a joint statement calling for the immediate release of the journalists.
“The FCCT and FCCHK do not consider it to be a crime to be handed documents from sources – in this case from police officers who had invited the pair to a meeting,” it said.
“The two journalists were engaged in normal reporting activities, and had not committed any wrongdoing. All charges against them should be dropped.”
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.
The United States said it was “deeply disappointed” with court’s decision to allow the prosecution of the two journalists.
“The media freedom that is so critical to rule of law and a strong democracy requires that journalists be able to do their jobs,” said a statement from the State Department.
“We reiterate our call for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s immediate and unconditional release.”
Burmese government spokesman Zaw Htay declined to comment on the charges but said the two had their rights under an independent judicial system.
“The judge will decide whether they are guilty or not according to the law,” he told Reuters.
Additional reporting from Reuters