Myanmar Charges Journalists Covering Rohingya Abuse for 'Information Useful to Enemies'

A court in Myanmar has formally charged two Reuters reporters under the Official Secret Act.

Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, were detained on December 12 after a meeting with the police. They face between three and 14 years in jail.

The pair were reporting on the situation in Myanmar's Rakhine state, where more than 655,000 people have fled following a military campaign the United Nations said may amount to ethnic cleansing.

"They arrested us and took action against us because we were trying to reveal the truth," Wa Lone told reporters as he and Kyaw Soe Oo were led out of the court and back to Yangon's Insein prison after the 30-minute hearing.

Khin Maung Zaw, a lawyer representing the two journalists, said the charges being sought came under Section 3.1 (c) of the British colonial-era Official Secrets Act.

The act dates back to 1923, when Myanmar, then known as Burma, was a province of British India.

The section used to charge the journalists says that the state can prosecute anyone who "obtains, collects, records or publishes or communicates to any other person any secret official code or password, or any sketch, plan, model, article or note or other document or information which is calculated to be or might be or is intended to be, directly or indirectly, useful to an enemy."

The Ministry of Information had previously cited police as saying they were "arrested for possessing important and secret government documents related to Rakhine State and security forces." The ministry has said they "illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media."

The prosecutor objected to an application for bail, the reporters' lawyer, Khin Maung Zaw, said. The court took it under consideration and will decide at the next hearing on Jan. 23, he said.

The government has said two police officers were also arrested for investigation under suspicion of having violated the Official Secrets Act. It has given no further information on the police arrested.

Reuters journalists Myanmar
Reuters journalists Wa Lone (L) and Kyaw Soe Oo, who are based in Myanmar, pose for a picture at the Reuters office in Yangon, Myanmar December 11, 2017. They face up to 14 years in jail as Myanmar is trying them under its Official Secret Act. REUTERS/Antoni Slodkowski/File Photo

Reuters President and Editor-In-Chief Stephen J. Adler said he was extremely disappointed that the authorities were seeking to prosecute the pair.

"We view this as a wholly unwarranted, blatant attack on press freedom. Our colleagues should be allowed to return to their jobs reporting on events in Myanmar. We believe time is of the essence and we continue to call for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo's prompt release," he said.

Government spokesman Zaw Htay declined to comment on the charges but said the two had their rights under an independent judicial system.

"The judge will be decide whether they are guilty or not according to the law," he told Reuters.

About 30 journalists were outside the court, most dressed in black as a sign of protest against the arrest of the pair. Several had the message "journalism is not a crime" or "release the arrested journalists now" on their T-shirts.

What is happening in Myanmar?

The charges came weeks after Myanmar indefinitely barred access to the U.N. independent investigator on human rights in the country.

U.N. special rapporteur Yanghee Lee said she had been scheduled to travel to Myanmar in January. However, Myanmar told her that it would not cooperate with her or grant her access to the country for the rest of her tenure.

The country's army has been accused of committing human rights abuses, including mass rapes and extrajudicial executions, against the Rohingya, an ethnic minority that lives in segregated conditions in Rakhine.

The Rohingya are stateless people regarded as unwelcome migrants from Bangladesh. They routinely flee Myanmar due to alleged persecution.

Myanmar's Rakhine state
This photo taken on September 6, 2017 shows Rohingya Muslims in the village of Shwe Zarr looking at Myanmar police, who are providing security due to recent nearby unrest, near Maungdaw township in Rakhine State. More than 655,000 people have fled Rakhine state following a military campaign the United Nations said may amount to ethnic cleansing. STR/AFP/Getty Images

The recent exodus was sparked following attacks by Rohingya insurgents that killed at least 11 people in Rakhine. The military retaliated with what was described as "clearance operations" to identify and root out militants. However, the U.N. described it as a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing."

The army has strongly denied accusations of excessive force against the Rohingya, but U.N. rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein said violence against Rohingya may amount to genocide.

Myanmar's de-facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has faced scathing criticism for her prolonged silence and perceived inaction to resolve the ongoing crisis.

Suu Kyi's power over the military is limited, however she has been criticized for failing to address the situation and publicly condemn the massacres. The leader refuses to use the word "Rohingya" in her public addresses, arguing it is too contentious for an already affected population.