Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were charged under the Official Secrets Act after a meeting with police in which they had offered information on the humanitarian situation in Rakhine state. The Ministry of Information says they “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media.”
Ethnic tensions between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine have led to military intervention, bloodshed and the outflow of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims across the border into Bangladesh. The Myanmar government’s official position on the crisis is that Rohingya are illegal Bengali immigrants.
The journalists were arrested on Dec. 12 and detained without access to family or lawyers for two weeks. They appeared in court on Dec. 27 and were remanded until Wednesday, when they were charged. Their next court appearance in due on Jan. 23.
“We view this as a wholly unwarranted, blatant attack on press freedom. Our colleagues should be allowed to return to their jobs reporting on events in Myanmar. We believe time is of the essence and we continue to call for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s prompt release,” said Stephen J. Adler, president and editor-in-chief, at Reuters.
The move against the reporters has also outraged governments, NGOs and journalists’ organizations, many of which were already concerned by deteriorating human rights standards, and possible ethnic cleansing, in Myanmar.
The U.S. said it was “deeply disappointed” by Myanmar’s decision to pursue charges. “The media freedom that is so critical to rule of law and a strong democracy requires that journalists be able to do their jobs,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.
“The secretary-general has repeated and will continue to repeat his concern at the erosion of press freedom in Myanmar and calling on the international community to do everything to secure the journalists’ release and freedom of the press,” said United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric.
“They have done absolutely nothing but carry out their legitimate work as journalists,” said James Gomez, Amnesty International’s director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, in a statement. “This is clearly an attempt by the authorities to silence investigations into military violations and crimes against Rohingya in Rakhine State, and to scare other journalists away from doing the same.”
In 2017 the Reporters Without Borders organization ranked Myanmar at #131 out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom. It accused the new civilian government of failing the media sector. “The authorities continue to exert pressure on the media and even intervene directly to get editorial policies changed. Widespread racist attitudes towards the Rohingya people restrict free and independent coverage of the humanitarian crisis in (Rakhine) state,” it said.
On Wednesday Myanmar’s army acknowledged for the first time that soldiers were involved in unlawfully killing 10 Rohingyas. An internal inquiry found that four members of the security forces were involved in Inn Din village near Maungdaw in Rakhine.