Two Reuters journalists, who covered the ongoing state-sponsored crackdown against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, have been officially charged for breaching a colonial-era law.
The two local journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were arrested last December during a meeting with two police officials over dinner for “possessing important and secret government documents related to Rakhine State and security forces.”
Despite international calls for their immediate release, Myanmar security forces charged the journalists “under the state secret (Official Secrets) act, section 3.1” at the Yangon court on Wednesday.
The charges brought against them could carry a penalty of up to 14 years behind bars.
According to the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, anyone who “obtains, collects, records or publishes… any official document or information… useful to an enemy,” will be punished. The act dates back to 1923, when Myanmar, then known as Burma, was a province of British India.
Family members of the journalists, who were present at the court, told a news conference late last year that police may have fabricated a case for their arrest. They cited the two as saying that police had given “two rolled papers” to them at a restaurant before their arrest.
Their lawyer, Khin Maung Zaw, said on Wednesday that the prosecutor had objected to an application for bail, and that the court would decide the matter at the next hearing on January 23.
Reporters protest against journalists’ arrest
Reporters covering Wednesday’s proceedings dressed in black in protest against the arrest of the Reuters’ journalists. They were carrying banners reading “Journalism is not a crime” or wearing T-shirts with the message “Release the arrested journalists now.”
Observers from the United Nations and several embassies, including those of the Netherlands, Australia and Britain, were also present at the court as police cordoned off the area.
Top officials from the United Nations and several countries, including Britain and Canada, have called for the release of the pair.
EU envoy calls on Suu Kyi to release reporters
In a letter to the country’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, European Union envoy to Myanmar, Kristian Schmidt, has raised concerns about the arrest of the two journalists and called for their immediate release.
The letter dated January 8, called on Suu Kyi “to provide the necessary legal protection for these two journalists, to ensure the full respect of their fundamental rights and to release them immediately.”
“This situation amounts to a serious intimidation against journalists in general and from Reuters in particular,” he wrote. “Journalists should … be able to work in a free and enabling environment without fear of intimidation or undue arrest or prosecution.”
The government has blocked the coverage of the military crackdown in Rakhine. The UN says nearly 655,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled the western state to Bangladesh since the bloody violence erupted last August.
Government troops have been committing killings, making arbitrary arrests, and carrying out arson attacks in Muslim villages in Rakhine.
Only in its first month, some 6,700 Muslims were killed in the crackdown described by the UN and prominent rights groups as an “ethnic cleansing campaign.” Doctors Without Borders said more than 700 children had also lost their lives.
Rohingya children trapped in Rakhine: UNICEF
Almost 60,000 Rohingya children are currently trapped in appalling camps in central Rakhine, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported.
UNICEF spokesperson Marixie Mercado (seen below), told journalists in Geneva that prior to August 25, UNICEF had been treating 4,800 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition, and that these children were no longer receiving the life-saving treatment.
“All 12 of the outpatient therapeutic treatment centers run by our partners are closed because they were either looted, destroyed or staff can’t access them,” she said. “We hear of high levels of toxic fear in children from both Rohingya and Rakhine communities.”
Mercado stressed that the Rohingya children “need a political solution to the issue of legal identity and citizenship.”
The Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations but are denied citizenship, and branded illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The UN has described a 1.1million strong Muslim community as the most persecuted minority in the world.