Myanmar authorities charge Reuters journalists with obtaining state secrets

Henrietta Strickland
January 13, 2018

"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.

The Myanmar government sought on Wednesday to charge two arrested Reuters journalists under its Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum sentence of 14 years, according to their lawyer.

The news agency said that little is known of the accusations against the journalists, other than that they were arrested for allegedly possessing classified documents related to Rakhine state.

"It is not the same as what Ko Wa Lone and [Kyaw Soe Oo] said, and what is understood by the world", Than Zaw Aung said.

"This is unacceptable", Wa Lone said from the back of a police truck after the brief hearing.

"So we are going to give arguments in detail in the next trial". They said it is important, but don't read it now. It has given no further information on the police arrested.

Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, were arrested on December 12 after contributing to Reuters' coverage of the crisis in the state of Rakhine, where killing and abuse of the Rohingya minority have been blamed on the Myanmar army. They were reportedly invited to meet with police officers in a restaurant. "They didn't even have a chance to see what the documents were". Mr. Kyaw Soe Oo is a Reuters reporter and, with a colleague, Wa Lone, has been imprisoned and charged with carrying out the "crime" of investigative journalism.

"These two policemen are now witnesses for the plaintiff's side", he said.

"We will face the charges filed against us", he added. Government spokesman U Zaw Htay declined to comment when asked if the two officers had been or would also be charged.

Than Zaw Aung, an attorney representing the journalists, told RFA's Myanmar Service following the journalists' second hearing in Yangon that the defense team submitted a bail petition to be considered at the next hearing on January 23, hoping that the judge will grant an exception for what is otherwise not a bailable offense.

Arriving shortly after 10am, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were bundled through a media scrum into the courtroom. On January 10, the Insein Court formally accepted charges against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo under Section 3.1 (c) of the 1923 Official Secrets Act, a colonial-era law that makes it an offense to "obtain" or "collect" any material or information "calculated to be or might be or is meant to be...useful to an enemy".

The clause, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years, prohibits visiting places, capturing images or handling documents that "might be or is meant to be, directly or indirectly, useful to an enemy". A statement said that 10 bodies there were of Muslims who had been killed by villagers and security forces "because they were terrorists".

It said the men had "illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media".

"We didn't violate any media ethics". The six were initially charged under the 1908 Unlawful Associations Act but were released without charge in July, having spent nearly two months in jail.

Former US president Bill Clinton has urged that the journalists be freed immediately. Swe Win was released on bail, but his trial continues.

Both the 1908 Unlawful Association Act and 1934 Aircraft Act were employed in 2017 to detain journalists reporting on conflict in Myanmar. It accused the new civilian government of failing the media sector.

In October, two foreign journalists, along with their fixer and driver, were prosecuted for flying a drone close to the national parliament.

Observers from a number of foreign embassies attended the trial on Wednesday, and there has been much worldwide criticism. Reuters [Reuters report] Editor-in-Chief also condemned the arrests, calling it a "blatant attack on press freedom".

"We never made any mistakes, they are trying to stop us and intimidate us", said 31-year-old Wa Lone, as eight police officers ushered him out of the court, his tearful wife still clutching his hand.

After they were detained, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the arrests showed how press freedom was deteriorating in Myanmar, while U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for their immediate release. On Monday, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists declared Aung San Suu Kyi the "Biggest Backslider in Press Freedom" in its Press Oppressors Awards.

"The journalists and media professionals of the NewsGuild of NY call for the immediate release of the two Reuters journalists who - for doing their jobs - have been detained in Myanmar under an outdated and unjust law", the NewsGuild of NY said in a statement to HuffPost.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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