The detention of two reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo from Reuters, is a reminder that much praised reform and the democratic transition in Myanmar are still a distant dream. What is worrying now is that the media is being targeted.
The two reporters were arrested under the Official Secrets Act for allegedly possessing internal security reports related to fighting between border guard forces and Muslim militants the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in August and if found guilty, the reporters could be imprisoned for up to 14 years. The Ministry of Information said in a statement the reporters “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media.”
The military’s brutal response to ARSA militants and Muslim villagers in the area received international condemnation and the United Nations held several UN Security Council meetings and called on the government to allow an independent investigation. Moreover, the media should be allowed to visit these areas and operate freely, urged the authorities.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson criticized the Myanmar government’s actions against the Rohingya Muslim population in the country, labeling its actions “ethnic cleansing” after he visited the country in November. The United States is considering imposing targeted sanctions on the Myanmar military and has asked countries not to sell arms to Myanmar.
The US embassy in Yangon issued a statement that read: “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 night. For a democracy to succeed, journalists need to be able to do their jobs freely. We urge the government to explain these arrests and allow immediate access to the journalists.”
In the wake of the arrest, Reuters’ editor-in-chief Stephen J. Adler said: “We are outraged by this blatant attack on press freedom. We call for authorities to release them immediately,” in a statement.
It is an outrage to see the Ministry of Information release a police record photo of reporters handcuffed – as police normally do to criminals – on its website soon after the detention. It is chilling to see that MOI has suddenly brought us back to the olden days of a repressive regime. The reporters are not criminals nor should they be charged under any laws or acts. Newsgathering and investigation are meant to seek the truth but these arrests indicate that government is now clearly curtailing those practices. The arrest demonstrates an attack on press freedom and the work of journalists. There is no way to justify the arrest and detention.
We ask the government to free Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo immediately.