The Irrawaddy

Two Reuters Reporters Charged With Violating Official Secrets Act

YANGON — Yangon’s Northern District Court on Monday charged two Reuters reporters with breaching the Official Secrets Act for allegedly obtaining secret government documents.

They are charged with violating Section 3 [1] [c] of the colonial-era law, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.

Ko Wa Lone, 32, and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, pleaded not guilty on grounds that they had no intention of harming the government’s interest.

They told the court that they were simply doing their jobs as reporters, and neither collected nor copied the documents.

Defense lawyer U Khin Maung Zaw told reporters after the court hearing that the defense would seek to refute the judge’s ruling “that Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo were caught with state information on that day [Dec. 12] and which stated that they collected and noted down secret government information, either to share with the enemy or to use against the interests of the government by possessing or distributing them.”

The defense lawyer said that he was “dissatisfied” with the court’s decision but still hoped to win the case. He said the defense would do its best at future hearings and expected to complete making its case in the next two months.

In upcoming hearings the court will hear from six defense witnesses, including the two reporters, U Khin Maung Zaw said. The reporters are scheduled to testify on July 16.

The pair has been in pretrial detention since their arrests on Dec. 12. At the time they were arrested, they were investigating the executions of 10 Rohingya men and boys by Myanmar Army soldiers in Inn Din village in northern Rakhine State. Reuters subsequently published an in-depth story on the massacre, which drew on the reporting of Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo. In April, the military announced that seven soldiers had been sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment for their roles in the extrajudicial killings.

Reuters president and editor-in-chief Stephen J. Adler said the news organization was “deeply disappointed” with the ruling and called the case against the reporters “baseless”.

“These Reuters journalists were doing their jobs in an independent and impartial way, and there are no facts or evidence to suggest that they’ve done anything wrong or broken any law,” he said in a statement.

“Today’s decision casts serious doubt on Myanmar’s commitment to press freedom and the rule of law.”

The defense lawyers told The Irrawaddy that there is still hope that the case will be dismissed after the court hears from the defense witnesses.

In 2014, five reporters from the Unity Journal were charged under Section 3 [1] [a] of the Official Secrets Act and eventually sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment. Their sentences were reduced to seven years on appeal to the regional court.

International press-freedom advocacy organizations including Article 19, Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists released statements Monday calling for the charges against the two reporters to be dropped.

“Today’s decision renders the judiciary complicit in a farcical miscarriage of justice,” said Matthew Bugher, head of Article 19’s Asia Program. “Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo took great personal risks to cast light on events largely hidden from the public’s view. Instead of dragging them through preposterous legal proceedings, the government should commend the journalists for their indispensable role in promoting accountability.”