YANGON — “We were arrested on a trumped up charge so as to prevent [journalists] from reporting true news,” said Ko Wa Lone, one of two detained Reuters reporters, during his appearance at the Yangon North District Court on Wednesday.
Ko Wa Lone and his colleague Ko Kyaw Soe Oo have been detained by police since Dec. 12 and are charged under Section 3 of the colonial-era Official Secrets Act for allegedly acquiring information from police officers about the violence in northern Rakhine State illegally.
Defense lawyer U Than Zaw Aung said the defense team asked for the reporters’ release on bail and added that the next hearing was scheduled for Jan. 23.
Police Lieutenant Colonel Yu Naing, the plaintiff, did not show up on Wednesday. But 25 witnesses, including the two police officers who reportedly gave the reporters the documents, were presented to the court.
The Home Affairs Ministry has said it would take action against the two police officers —Captain Moe Yan Naing and Lance Corporal Khin Maung Linn — but has not yet made public whether it actually has.
The Information Ministry reported that the two reporters unlawfully obtained important documents related to the violence in Rakhine State with the intention of sharing them with foreign news agencies. But the families of the reporters claim they were arrested before even reading the records they were handed.
When the pair was escorted back to the prison van after the court hearing under a heavy police escort, Ko Kyaw Soe Oo’s cousin said in tears that she never expected to see her baby brother in handcuffs.
“Please support him and Wa Lone. Please set them free,” she said.
Ko Wa Lone’s wife, Ma Pan Ei Mon, said her husband was diagnosed with a hernia and back pain and that she submitted the doctor’s prescription to the police.
“I don’t know if he will get the treatment he needs,” she told The Irrawaddy.
Local and foreign media have called the Reuters reporters’ arrest a threat to press freedom, and Western countries including the US, UK and Canada have urged the Myanmar government to release them.
“We are disappointed by today’s decision to pursue charges against Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo under the Official Secrets Act. For democracy to succeed and flourish, journalists must be able to do their jobs. We call for their immediate release,” the US Embassy said in a statement it released Wednesday.
“This charge is nothing to do with us,” said Ko Kyaw Soe Oo, urging his fellow journalists to take care of their own security while uncovering the truth.
“I’d like to urge people to protect journalists. We will continue to uncover the truth,” he added.
The Protection Committee for Myanmar Journalists campaigned for their release at Wednesday’s hearing.
Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo were questioned at the Aung Tha Pyay police interrogation center in Yangon Region’s Mayangone Township for 15 days before appearing at the Mingalardon Township Court for the first time on Dec. 27.
Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.