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RSF urges Myanmar to free two Reuters reporters

12 January 2018

The US State Department on Wednesday said it is "deeply disappointed" by the decision of the Myanmar Court that's allowing the prosecution of two journalists under the Official Secrets Act.

Their families have suggested the pair were set up, saying the arrests took place immediately after leaving the restaurant where they dined with the two policemen.

A group of Myanmar reporters asked the government on Monday for details about the arrest of the two, arguing that the case could have implications for the ability of journalists to do their jobs.

Authorities in the Southeast Asian nation brought formal charges Wednesday against the two journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were arrested last month while attempting to report on the government's violent campaign against Rohingya Muslims.

The reporters, Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, were detained on December 12. 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".

The same month as their release, prominent journalist Ko Swe Win was arrested at Yangon Airport on suspicion of violating the notorious clause 66 (d) of the Telecommunications Act, which covers online defamation, for a Facebook post deemed critical of nationalist monk U Wirathu. Their black T-shirts read, "Journalism is not a crime".

The case has shocked Myanmar's embattled press corps. Though constitutionally supreme, Htin Kyaw is beholden to Aung San Suu Kyi, who, as state counselor, keeps a tight grip on the civilian government via her National League for Democracy (NLD) party.

The president authorized the initial police investigation. They include 730 children below the age of 5.

Reuters said it was "extremely disappointed" that the authorities were seeking to prosecute.

The US and European Union have led global calls for the journalists to be freed, while Amnesty International late Tuesday repeated its appeal for their immediate release.

Criticism within the country has been far more muted and largely confined to Myanmar's journalist community.

Reuters President and Editor-In-Chief Stephen J. Adler has called for the immediate release of the reporters. The Myanmar government's official position on the crisis is that Rohingya are illegal Bengali immigrants. Through state media, the NLD-controlled information ministry had laid the groundwork for reporters in the pay of overseas news agencies to be viewed as the equivalent of spies. "At the same, the government must promote rule of law around the country", government spokesperson Zaw Htay told VOA.

"None of the claims made by the authorities in this case seems to be credible", said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF's Asia-Pacific desk. He added that the "independent judicial process" must continue, to determine whether Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are "guilty or not".

"The secretary-general has repeated and will continue to repeat his concern at the erosion of press freedom in Myanmar and calling on the global community to do everything to secure the journalists' release and freedom of the press", said United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric. The two journalists are now detained at Insein Prison, reportedly with the general prison population.

The trial follows a year filled with clampdowns on press freedom in Myanmar.

The two journalists arrived and left court in handcuffs.

"For democracy to succeed and flourish, journalists must be able to do their jobs".

In all cases, after protracted trials, charges were eventually dropped, indicating a pattern that many hope will hold for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. 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.

The quasi-civilian government at the time denied the story, seized copies of the newspaper and arrested four Unity reporters and its CEO. He told VOA that the government could be using "political prisoners", including jailed journalists, as "bargaining chips" to deter renewed sanctions from Western powers over the Rohingya crisis.

RSF urges Myanmar to free two Reuters reporters