Pressure from prominent individuals in the international community and rights groups is mounting on the Myanmar government to release two Reuters journalists detained in December on charges of violating the country's colonial-era Official Secrets Act, with former U.S. President Bill Clinton now calling for their immediate release.
Police arrested Thet Oo Maung, also known as Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, on Dec. 12 for violating the law by allegedly illegally possessing classified documents about security forces in northern Rakhine state, where a military crackdown has driven about 655,000 Rohingya Muslims into neighboring Bangladesh since August 2017.
“A free press is critical to a free society — the detention of journalists anywhere is unacceptable,” Clinton said in a Twitter post on Monday. “The Reuters journalists being held in Myanmar should be released immediately.”
Authorities picked up Thet Oo Maung and Kyaw Soe Oo after they met with two police officers on the outskirts of Yangon. They were working on stories about the crackdown when authorities accused them of sending “important security documents regarding security forces in Rakhine state to foreign agencies abroad,” according to a government statement.
The two journalists, who are being held in Insein Prison on the outskirts of Yangon, are due in court on Wednesday for their second hearing during which the prosecutor could request that charges be filed against them, Reuters reported.
If found guilty, they could be spend up to 14 years in prison.
Also on Tuesday, London-based Amnesty International urged Myanmar authorities to immediately release the pair.
“Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo must be immediately and unconditionally released,” said James Gomez, the organization’s director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, in a statement. “They have done absolutely nothing but carrying out their legitimate work as journalists. This is clearly an attempt by the authorities to silence investigations into military violations and crimes against Rohingya in Rakhine state and to scare other journalists away from doing the same.”
“These arrests have not happened in a vacuum, but come as authorities are increasingly restricting independent media,” he said. “Journalists and media outlets, in particular those who report on ‘sensitive topics,’ are living with the constant fear of harassment, intimidation or arrest. This clampdown on freedom of speech must end.”
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) weighed in on Tuesday with a statement condemning the arrests and suggesting that the detentions are meant to deter other reporters from doing their jobs.
“None of the claims made by the authorities in this case seems to be credible,” said Daniel Bastard, head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“What with the lack of transparency, the failure to respect proper legal procedure and the fabrication of evidence, everything suggests that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are being used by the authorities as scapegoats in order to deter overly curious reporters,” he said.
EU envoy weighs in
Kristian Schmidt, the European Union’s representative to Myanmar, raised concerns about the arrest of the two journalists and uged their release in a letter to Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Monday.
“Journalists should … be able to work in a free and enabling environment without fear of intimidation or undue arrest or prosecution,” he said.
“We therefore call on your government to provide the necessary legal protection for these two journalists, to ensure the full respect of their fundamental rights and to release them immediately,” he said.
Washington, D.C.-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) issued a statement on Monday, denouncing the legal proceedings against the two journalists.
“The proceedings against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are a transparent attempt to intimidate the media and to prevent coverage of the unfolding tragedy of the Rohingya people in Myanmar’s Rakhine state,” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “The two reporters should not be in jail for trying to uncover the truth about this story of vital public interest.”
Also on Monday, a dozen reporters based in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw submitted a request to the Myanmar’s Home Affairs Ministry for more information about the case, arguing that it could have implications for the ability of journalists to do their jobs, Reuters reported.
Previously, U.N. and U.S. officials, a group of 50 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, and Myanmar’s Committee for the Protection of Journalists called on the Myanmar government to immediately and unconditionally release the two journalists.
The media and NGOs have been barred from entering northern Rakhine where the Myanmar military stands accused of committing atrocities against the Rohingya during the crackdown which the U.N. and U.S. say amounts to ethnic cleansing.
Both the government and the army have denied the accusations.