Myanmar court charges Reuters journalists under Official Secrets Act

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A Myanmar court on Wednesday accepted charges against two journalists under the Official Secrets Act, their lawyer said.

Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo (pictured above), 27, work for international news organization Reuters. They were arrested on December 12 in Yangon for allegedly possessing “important secret papers” related to the ongoing crisis in Rakhine state, which they say they acquired from two policemen.

Read more: Myanmar judge extends detention of two Reuters journalists over Rohingya reporting

The journalists had been reporting on the military crackdown in the northern Rakhine state that has prompted about 655,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to bordering Bangladesh and claimed around 6,700 lives since August.

Myanmar Journalisten Wa Lone und Kyaw Soe Oo kommen zum Gerichtshof an (Reuters/STR)

Reuters journalist Wa Lone speaks outside the court

One United Nations official said that the campaign “seems textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

A district judge told the court that a police officer had “filed the case to charge under the state secret [Official Secrets] act, section 3.1(c).”

“We will face the charges filed against us,” Wa Lone told reporters as he and Kyaw Soe Oo were led out of the court and to return to Yangon’s Insein prison following their 30-minute hearing.

The prosecutor objected to an application for bail, the journalists’ lawyer Khin Maung Zaw said. The court said it would take it under consideration and make a decision at the next hearing, he said, adding that “We are still far from the verdict.”

Read more: At least 6,700 Rohingya people killed, says Doctors Without Borders

Section 3.1c of the colonial-era Official Secrets Act punishes anyone who “obtains, collects, records or publishes … any official document or information” which could be “useful to an enemy.” It carries a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison.

The act dates back to 1923, when Myanmar, then known as Burma, was a province of British India. 

‘Protect our journalists’

The journalists’ family members and fellow reporters showed their support at the court on Wednesday.

Dozens of journalists wore black to protest the arrest of their colleagues, carrying banners reading: “Journalism is not a crime.”

Read more: Myanmar bars UN human rights investigator

“Please tell the people to protect our journalists,” Kyaw Soe Oo shouted to the court.

His colleague Wa Lone said his wife was pregnant, saying: “I’m trying to be strong.”

‘They have done absolutely nothing’

The arrest of the two journalists has received international criticism from governments and human rights organizations.

Read more: HRW: Myanmar continues to destroy Rohingya villages

The United States and European Union have both called for the journalists to be freed.

On Tuesday, Amnesty International repeated its demand 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.

Former US President Bill Clinton also commented on the journalists’ arrests this week. “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.”

At least 11 journalists were arrested in Myanmar in 2017, including two foreign correspondents and a local reporter working for Turkish state broadcaster TRT.

law/msh (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)