NAYPYITAW — Two Reuters journalists arrested last week were deliberately “set up,” according to National League for Democracy spokesperson U Win Htein, who added that he felt sorry for the pair.
Thet Oo Maung (aka Wa Lone) and Moe Aung (aka Kyaw Soe Oo) were detained by police in Yangon’s Mingalardon Township on Dec. 12 after allegedly receiving reports from police officers containing detailed information about fighting between government troops and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army in late August 2017. The pair is accused of attempting to illegally acquire information for the purposes of sharing it with foreign media.
The reporters were detained by the Home Affairs Ministry under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which dates to 1923. Conviction carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years.
A week after their arrest, the pair’s whereabouts is still unclear. The Ministry of Information issued a report the day after the arrest, saying the reporters had “illegally acquired information with the intention of sharing it with foreign media.”
“They were arrested red-handed with documents. I heard they obtained the documents from police officials with whom they had dinner. They weren’t arrested until after they had left the company of those officers,” U Win Htein said in Naypyitaw on Monday.
“Looking at the choice of charge, it is easy to see that this was planned. The charge concerns state security, so it has become a big case,” he said.
However, the leading NLD member said the reporters had been “naïve” to allow themselves to be trapped.
“How could they be so naïve? They should have been smarter. They should have gotten rid of the documents as soon as they saw them,” he added.
“If you choose to be a journalist, you can’t be naïve. Otherwise you’ll be at a disadvantage.”
Information Minister Dr. Pe Myint said it was too early to say what the ministry’s response would be, as he had no information about the proceedings that were being brought against the pair.
“We try to help as much as we can when journalists have problems,” he said at Karen New Year Celebrations in Naypyitaw on Monday.
Presidential spokesperson U Zaw Htay confirmed to The Irrawaddy over the weekend that the President’s Office backed the charging of the reporters.
The Information Ministry’s initial online and print reporting of the incident featured photos of the two journalists in handcuffs standing behind a table with their faces visible, provoking the ire of non-state media. It is customary to obscure the faces of criminal suspects in photographs.
Ministry Permanent Secretary U Myo Myint Maung said the news report came directly from the Home Affairs Ministry, and the Information Ministry did not have the authority to change it.
“Rather than arguing about whether the publication of the photo was right or wrong, I think it is best to reduce the negative impacts of it by following media ethics,” U Myo Myint Maung said.
Ko Thalun Zaung Htet from the Yangon-based Protection Committee for Journalists (Myanmar) accused the Information Ministry of aiding and abetting the Home Affairs Ministry in its suppression of media freedoms by speaking up for it.
“What help can we expect from the Information Ministry since they didn’t even obscure the faces of the journalists?” he asked, adding that even the faces of murder suspects are obscured in reports.
To protest the reporters’ detention, the committee on Saturday announced it was launching a campaign to symbolically support the pair by having journalists wear black while performing their duties.
“Reporters will wear black when reporting and producing news to symbolically represent the suppression of press freedom and the blacking out of information,” the committee said.
The Myanmar Press Council will issue its response to the arrests this week, said U Thiha Saw, a spokesperson for the council.
“Access to information is very limited here. It’s because this is case relating to information gathering. We’ll wait and see,” said former Reuters journalist U Aung Hla Tun. The two journalists have been detained incommunicado.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said last week that the arrests were a sign that press freedom is being eroded in Myanmar. He urged the international community to do all it can to get them released. Their families have been denied access to the duo. Reuters president and editor-in-chief Stephen J. Adler insisted the two are “innocent of any wrongdoing.”
“Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are journalists who perform a crucial role in shedding light on news of global interest, and they are innocent of any wrongdoing,” he said in a statement. “We are grateful for the widespread expressions of support and we call for their immediate release.”
According to sources from Rakhine State, police are investigating four teachers and a villager in Maungdaw who allegedly spoke to the Reuters reporters.
In August, Yangon Region Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein lodged a complaint with the Myanmar Press Council over a Reuters report questioning the cost of the minister’s deals with Chinese automaker Yutong to purchase buses for Yangon Bus Service (YBS) as part of his public transport reform initiatives.
The Union government has also questioned Reuters’ coverage of the Rakhine issue, accusing it of deliberately failing to include the government’s views in its reports.
“Only international pressure and clever lawyers will be able to save the reporters,” U Win Htein said.
Translated from the Burmese by Thet Ko Ko. The Irrawaddy’s Tin Htet Paing contributed reporting.