YANGON – A dozen Myanmar news organizations demanded the government immediately release two Reuters journalists who have been detained by police in Htauk Kyant since Tuesday after being found in possession of classified reports related to the conflict in northern Rakhine State.
The two journalists, Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone, were charged under the Official Secrets Act Article 3 – which was enacted during the British colonial era to oppress Myanmar citizens for political purposes — for possessing police reports containing detailed information about the fighting between government troops and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in late August 2017. If found guilty, the reporters could be imprisoned for up to 14 years.
Both journalists had been covering the flight of about 620,000 Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh triggered by a military “clearance operations,” which the UN has characterized as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Two policemen were also arrested for allegedly providing the documents to the reporters.
The 12 organizations, including the Myanmar Journalist Network (MJN), Myanmar Journalist Association (MJA), Myanmar Journalists Union (MJU), Burma News International (BNI), Myanmar Media Lawyers’ Network (MML), and the Myanmar Women Journalists Society (MWJS), which are based in Yangon, and other regional organizations such as the Arakan Journalist Association and Taunggyi Journalist Association, issued a joint statement regarding the detention of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo and urged the government to process the case transparently.
“We journalists absolutely believe that journalists have the right to travel to conflict zones as well as gather information from relevant sources in order to produce accurate reports,” the joint statement from the journalist groups states.
Further, it says that while the media corps can accept it was possible the two reporters were in possession of important information that may not have been suitable for general publication because of its potential to damage the state’s dignity or for security reasons, accusing the journalists of violating the state secrets act for possessing police reports should be regarded as “threatening the freedom of the press.”
The groups’ letter said that applying an outdated law to prosecute journalists could harm the reputation of the country’s fragile elected government, while the arrest of the journalists could fuel growing international criticism of Myanmar, especially with regard to those who are covering the Rohingya crisis.
“We are deeply concerned about the citizen’s rights of the detained journalists as their family members have not been allowed to meet them since they were seized,” the statement said.
Earlier today, Reuters President and Editor-in-Chief, Stephen J. Adler, issued a statement via the Reuters Press Blog, calling on the authorities to release the two reporters without delay.
“Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have been reporting on events of global importance in Myanmar, and we learned today that they have been arrested in connection with their work. We are outraged by this blatant attack on press freedom. We call for authorities to release them immediately,” Adler said.
The US Embassy also expressed its concern about the detained journalists in a statement released shortly after news of the arrests broke on social media.
“We are deeply concerned by the highly irregular arrests of two Reuters reporters after they were invited to meet with police officials in Yangon last (Tuesday) night,” the embassy said in a statement.
The Committee to Protect Journalists and U.S. embassy urged the government to explain the arrests and demanded the unconditional release of the detainees.