A dozen Myanmar media groups, the United Nations, the European Union, and international rights organizations condemned the arrests of two Reuters journalists in Myanmar and called for their immediate release on Thursday.
Myanmar police arrested Thet Oo Maung, also known as Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, on Dec. 12 for violating Section 3 of the country’s Official Secrets Act by allegedly illegally acquiring and possessing government documents regarding security forces in violence-ridden Rakhine state.
The reporters, who were working on stories on the crisis, are accused of intending “to send important security documents regarding security forces in Rakhine state to foreign agencies abroad,” according to a statement issued by the government on Wednesday. If found guilty, the pair faces up to 14 years in prison.
The state-run Global New Light of Myanmar said on Thursday that the journalists “obtained the documents by deception” from two policemen who returned from Rakhine state after serving security duties in Maungtaw and Buthidaung townships. The two officers have also been arrested.
Twelve groups — the Myanmar Journalism Institute, Myanmar Journalist Association, Myanmar Journal Union, Myanmar Media Lawyer Network, Burmese News International, Myanmar Women Journalist Society, Middle Myanmar Journalist Network, Lashio Journalists Group, Taunggyi Journalist Group, Monywa Journalist Network, Myanmar Journalist Network, and Rakhine Journalists Group — called on the government to free the reporters and said they rejected their arrest because it posed a threat to press freedom.
“We journalists absolutely believe that journalists have the right to travel to conflict zones as well as gather information from relevant sources in order to produce accurate reports,” said a joint statement they issued.
“We are deeply concerned about the citizen’s rights of the detained journalists, as their family members have not been allowed to meet them since they were seized,” it said.
The Yangon Journalism School has suspended a journalism training program in collaboration with the Information Ministry on account of the arrests and the publication of a photo claiming that Thet Oo Maung and Kyaw Soe Oo are criminals.
“I notice that journalists are charged under the worst and most comprehensive acts when these laws are suited to authorities, such as the Official Secrets Act or the Unlawful Associations Act,” said school founder Ye Naing Moe. “This means that authorities’ view of the media is wrong, and it shouldn’t be this way, especially when the nation is moving forward toward democracy.”
Rights groups and Myanmar journalists say authorities under the current government are increasingly using the colonial-era Official Secrets Act of 1923 and the Unlawful Associations Act of 1908 to silence their critics and suppress political opposition, often in the case of ethnic minority groups.
“Giving information to the media is essential and a very important job for any government,” Ye Naing Moe said. “Our government authorities need to have this attitude.”
“Government officials must believe that the media is doing their job, which is telling people what is going on in the country,” he said.
Aung Hla Tun, vice chairman of the Myanmar Press Council, said Thursday that neither Myanmar authorities nor the family members of the detained journalists have informed the council of their arrests.
“We just heard this news from the media world,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
The council is responsible for investigating and settling press disputes and protecting media employees in Myanmar.
“The MPC has the right to do something for these journalists only after someone officially informs us,” Aung Hla Tun said. “If we are informed, we can do what the MPC should do.”
International community responds
On the international front, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told a news conference in Tokyo on Thursday that the detentions of the reporters are “clearly a concern in relation to the erosion of press freedom in the country,” Reuters reported.
Guterres has spoken out against human rights violations during a recent military crackdown in northern Rakhine that forced more than 646,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee the country for southeastern Bangladesh since Aug. 25.
“And probably the reason why these journalists were arrested is because they were reporting on what they have seen in relation to this massive human tragedy,” he was quoted as saying.
Antonio Tajani, president of the European Parliament, also called on the Myanmar government on Thursday to release the two journalists and safeguard press freedom.
“I hope the authorities in Myanmar will free them as soon as possible,” he told reporters during an EU summit in Brussels, Reuters reported. “Light should be shed on this case and human rights and press freedom.”
Both the EU and the United States have sanctions against Myanmar banning arms sales, and they both recently suspended invitations to the country’s military officers.
Britain expressed “grave concerns” to the Myanmar government over the arrest of the two journalists, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told the media in London on Thursday, Reuters reported.
“We are committed to freedom of speech and people’s ability to report the facts and bring into the public domain what is happening in Rakhine state,” he was quoted as saying.
Rights groups have their say
Rights groups also chimed in on the detentions.
Fortify Rights called the case the latest example of a broader and targeted crackdown on the media by Myanmar authorities.
“Myanmar authorities are once again hounding journalists in an effort to silence the profession,” said Matthew Smith, the group’s chief executive officer, in a statement. “The authorities should immediately disclose the whereabouts and well-being of the two journalists.”
“National and international journalists are being squeezed for doing their jobs,” he said. “The environment for media right now is as hostile as it’s been for years, and if adequate pressure doesn’t mount on the civilian and military leadership, we can expect it to worsen.”
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called for the immediate release of Thet Oo Maung and Kyaw Soe Oo.
“We call for the immediate release of these two Reuters reporters,” said Daniel Bastard, head of RSF's Asia-Pacific desk, in a statement. “The charges announced by the government's spokesman are completely spurious. No detail has been provided about the supposed 'security documents' or the mysterious ‘foreign agencies.’”
“These arrests are clearly another attempt by the authorities to intimidate overly curious journalists,” he said.
Since Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian-led government came to power in April 2016, Myanmar continues to be ranked no higher than 131 out of 180 countries on RSF’s World Press Freedom Index.
On Wednesday, the U.S. embassy in Myanmar, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Reuters president and editor-in-chief, Stephen J. Adler, issued statements calling for the immediate and unconditional release of the reporters.
Reported by Nay Rein Kyaw and Waiyan Moe Myint for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.