YANGON — The Myanmar Press Council (MPC) said today that it would like to mediate in the case of two Reuters reporters who have now spent more than a week in state custody without word of their location or contact with family or lawyers.
The MPC made the offer in a statement it released at the press conference in Yangon on Wednesday.
The council added that it would like to serve as an expert witness should the case go to trial and if the court allowed it. The MPC said it was also prepared to provide the reporters with legal assistance to ensure that justice was served.
The two Reuters journalists, Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo, have been detained at an undisclosed location since their arrest on Dec. 12 in Yangon, allegedly for possessing police reports containing detailed information about the fighting between government troops and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army in late August. Two policemen were also arrested for allegedly providing the documents to the reporters.
The police opened the case under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act’s Article 3, which allows for prison sentences of up to 14 years. The policemen were charged under both the Official Secrets Act and the Myanmar Police Force Maintenance of Discipline Law.
Reuters reported on Wednesday that President’s Office spokesman U Zaw Htay said the police had nearly completed their investigation of the two journalists and that their case would head to court soon afterward.
At the press conference on Wednesday, local reporters criticized the MPC for not doing more to protect the Reuters journalists or denounce their arrest.
“We couldn’t take to the streets or shout as soon as we knew about the arrest because we are not activists,” countered U Aung Hla Tun, a vice chairman of the MPC.
He said the council has resolved more than 300 disputes in recent years, 97 percent of them before they went to court.
“We are not a journalists network or association. We have laws, but we aren’t satisfied with them. But as a council we have to act in accordance with the existing laws,” said U Thiha Saw, an MPC secretary. He added that the council was working to amend the country’s News Media Law and encourage passage of a draft Right to Information Law so that journalists have more protection.
The council said that its chairman was an expert witness in the Unity Journal case in 2014.
Despite its intervention, the Union Journal’s chief executive and four of its reporters were sentenced to 10-year jail terms with hard labor that July under the Official Secrets Act for reporting on a military chemical weapons factory in Magwe Region. The court reduced their sentence to seven years in October 2014 and released them courtesy of a presidential pardon in April 2016.
In 2017, 11 journalists were arrested and taken to court by either the military, police or nationalists on defamation charges or under various laws including the Official Secrets Act and the Unlawful Associations Act.