Prosecutors in Myanmar formally charged two journalists from the Reuters news agency on Wednesday (Jan 10) with violating the Official Secrets Act, signaling the case will go forward despite international condemnation.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested on December 12 after police accused them of violating the colonial-era law by acquiring “important secret papers” from two policemen. The police officers had worked in Rakhine State, where security forces are blamed for rights abuses against Rohingya Muslims that sparked the exodus of some 650,000 people to Bangladesh.
Meanwhile, dozens of journalists wearing black waited outside the court on Wednesday to protest the arrest of their colleagues, who were led into the court smiling and giving the thumbs up sign despite heavy handcuffs on their wrists.
“This is unacceptable,” Mr. Wa Lone said sitting inside a police truck after the brief hearing. “I want to tell you that they are charging us like this to stop us from finding the truth. Their actions are wrong and unfair.”
Than Zaw Aung, the journalists’ lawyer, said the prosecutor formally indicted the pair and they now face up to 14 years in prison, if convicted.
The lawyer said he appealed for the two to be immediately released on bail, but the judge said he would review that request and rule at the next hearing on January 23.
“We are still far from the verdict,” he said.
Rights and media groups have criticised Myanmar’s new civilian government led by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi for continuing to use colonial-era laws to threaten and imprison journalists. Such laws were widely used by the military junta that previously ruled the country to muzzle critics and the media.
Reuters Editor-in-Chief Stephen J. Adler said he was “extremely disappointed” by the charges and again called for the two journalists to be released immediately.
“We view this as a wholly unwarranted, blatant attack on press freedom,” Adler said in a statement. “Our colleagues should be allowed to return to their jobs reporting on events in Myanmar.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists also condemned Wednesday’s decision to charge the journalists.