PRESSURE is mounting on the government of Burma (Myanmar) to release two local journalists accused of violating national security laws.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo – who had reported extensively on the Rohingya crisis for Reuters – were first detained by police in December last year after being invited for dinner. They have been charged under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act and could face 14 years in prison.
The incident has sparked fears of a crackdown on press freedom amid what the United Nations has called “ethnic cleansing” against Rohingya Muslims in the country’s Rakhine State. The United States, Canada and several European countries have called for their release.
Last week, they were denied bail and sent back to Yangon’s notorious Insein prison. The two journalists will be back in court on Tuesday for the next in a series of hearings to determine whether they should face charges under the Official Secrets Act.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said the United States was “demanding their immediate release or information as to the circumstances around their disappearance”.
Students from Columbia Journalism School in New York are collecting books and well wishes for the two men. The Committee to Protect Journalists tweeted on Friday it was launching a book drive and collecting messages of support.
Book drive for imprisoned journalists: @columbiajourn is collecting books and messages of support for two recently imprisoned journalists working for @Reuters in #Myanmar. See the flyer for delivery details. pic.twitter.com/9nYxP0ILKm
— CPJ (@pressfreedom) February 2, 2018
According to Reuters, both men are book lovers and Wa Lone has even written a children’s book in Burmese and English.
He founded the non-profit Third Story Project which produces and distributes storybooks to communities that cannot afford them, aiming to promote harmony between Burma’s diverse ethnic groups.
A group of 50 Pulitzer Prize winners has called the arrests “an outrageous attack on media freedom” and demanded the immediate release of the two journalists. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Myanmar said it was “appalled” by the arrests and “gravely concerned” about press freedom there.
“Journalism is not a crime,” Yanghee Lee and David Kaye, the UN special rapporteurs on Myanmar and on freedom of expression have said in relation to the case. “These detentions are another way for the government to censor information about the military’s role in Rakhine State and the humanitarian catastrophe taking place.”
Some 690,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Burma into neighbouring Bangladesh since Aug 25, when the military launched so-called “clearing operations” in the Rakhine. Burma’s Tatmadaw army has been accused of atrocities including arson, mass killings and rape.
“We believe the court proceedings will demonstrate their innocence and Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo will be able to return to their jobs reporting on events in Myanmar,” said Reuters Editor-in-Chief Stephen J. Adler in a statement last week.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called upon the international community to “do whatever it can” to secure their release.
A version of this story was originally published on our sister website Study International. Additional reporting from Reuters.