Myanmar Charges Reuters Journalists Under Official Secrets Act

Burma/Myanmar – Press freedom (10 January 2018)

Burma/Myanmar – Press freedom (10 January 2018)

Prosecutors in Myanmar formally charged two journalists from the Reuters news agency on Wednesday with violating the Official Secrets Act, signaling the case will go forward despite global condemnation. Than Zaw Aung said the officers have been included on the witness list for the prosecution.

Government spokesman Zaw Htay declined to comment on the charges but said the two had their rights under an independent judicial system.

Myanmar authorities claimed the journalists violated the country's "Official Secrets Act" against espionage and the leaking of sensitive government information, mainly related to "Rakhine State and security forces".

The two had worked on Reuters coverage of a crisis in the western state of Rakhine, where - according to United Nations estimates - about 655,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled from a fierce military crackdown on militants.

Arriving shortly after 10am, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were bundled through a media scrum into the courtroom.

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

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". But the military has insisted that there was no wrongdoing by any security forces. An information ministry bulletin at the time of their arrest said they had "illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media".

Amnesty International said the men had "done absolutely nothing wrong". 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. Several had the message "journalism is not a crime" or "release the arrested journalists now" on their T-shirts. Swe Win was released on bail, but his trial continues.

In October, two foreign journalists, along with their fixer and driver, were prosecuted for flying a drone close to the national parliament. Myanmar journalist Ko Aung Naing Soe, Malaysian Mok Choy Lin and Lau Hon Meng, from Singapore, were on assignment for Turkish broadcaster TRT and jail for two months, alongside driver U Hla Tin, for violating the 1934 Aircraft Act. However, the NLD civilian government could, in principle, have chosen not to seek charges. In July 2014, the so-called "Unity Five" were sentenced to 10 years in prison with hard labour.

Observers from a number of foreign embassies attended the trial on Wednesday, and there has been much worldwide criticism. Instead, her government has denied that the arrest of the journalists represent an attack on press freedom. Our colleagues should be allowed to return to their jobs reporting on events in Myanmar.

Reuters Editor-in-Chief Stephen J. Adler said he was "extremely disappointed" by the charges and again called for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo to be released immediately.

We call for the respect of their fundamental rights, their immediate release by the Burmese authorities, and free media access to Rakhine State.

Global leaders, including former USA president Bill Clinton, and government officials from some of the world's major nations, including the United States, Britain and Canada, as well as United Nations officials, have called for their release.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton has urged that they be freed immediately, saying on Twitter on Monday that a free press was critical for a free society and the detention of journalists anywhere was unacceptable.