Two Reuters journalists were formally charged by police in a Myanmar court on Wednesday for breaching a colonial-era secrecy law that carries up to 14 years in jail, despite calls for their immediate release, Mizzima News has carried a report by AFP.
Myanmar nationals Wa Lone (31) and Kyaw Soe Oo (27) were arrested a month ago under the Official Secrets Act after they were allegedly given classified documents by two policemen over dinner.
The pair had been reporting on the military campaign in the northern Rakhine state that has forced some 655,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee over the border to Bangladesh since August, violence the UN has condemned as ethnic cleansing.
The issue is an incendiary inside Myanmar, where authorities deny any wrongdoing during an army crackdown on terrorists from the Muslim minority.
A police officer “filed the case to charge under the state secret (Official Secrets) act, section 3.1(c),” a district judge told the court.
The section punishes anyone who “obtains, collects, records or publishes… any official document or information” which could be “useful to an enemy.”
The pair will return to the court on January 23 for legal arguments, when the bench will decide whether to accept the case under Myanmar’s arcane legal system.
Emotive scenes gripped the Yangon courthouse with the journalists’ family members in tears and the reporters issuing desperate pleas before being led back to detention.
“Please tell the people to protect our journalists,” Kyaw Soe Oo shouted to the court.
His colleague Wa Lone said his wife was pregnant adding: “I’m trying to be strong.”
The case has shocked Myanmar’s embattled press corps.
Journalists covering Wednesday’s proceedings wore black in protest against their arrest, carrying banners proclaiming “Journalism is not a crime”.
“We applied for bail but the prosecutors rejected it,” the journalists’ lawyer Khin Maung Zaw said.
“So we are going to give arguments in detail in the next trial.”
On the other hand, Reuters insists its reporters have done nothing wrong, while their families have suggested the pair were set up.
The US and EU have led global calls for the journalists to be freed, while Amnesty International late Tuesday repeated its appeal for their immediate release.
A slew of legal cases against journalists have compounded disappointment among those hoping the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi would usher in a new era of freedom.