A Myanmar court extended the detention of two Reuters reporters on Wednesday during their first public appearance following 15 days of interrogation by police for allegedly violating the colonial-era Official Secrets Act.
Thet Oo Maung, also known as Wa Lone, and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested on Dec. 12 for possessing illegal government documents about security forces in northern Rakhine state, where a military crackdown has driven hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims into neighboring Bangladesh.
The journalists 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.”
The two obtained the documents from two police officers, who had been stationed in northern Rakhine, during a dinner meeting in Yangon. The policemen were also taken into custody but have not been charged.
Police have questioned the two reporters at the Aung Tha Pyay interrogation center in the city’s Mayangone township for the last 15 days.
They have been charged under Section 3 of the Official Secrets Act and will be held in custody for another two weeks. If found guilty, they could be sentenced to up to 14 years in prison.
“We did everything in accordance with the media law or ethics,” Thet Oo Maung told reporters at the courthouse. “We didn’t violate them.”
He also said that the police have not beaten or mistreated them.
Wednesday was first time since their arrest that the two journalists were allowed to meet their families and attorney.
“They shouldn't been charged under this act,” defense lawyer Thant Zaw Aung said. “They were gathering information and were doing their jobs as journalists without violating the Media Law.”
Than Zaw Aung said Thet Oo Maung and Kyaw Soe Oo signed documents that allowed him to represent them in court.
“I didn’t get much time to discuss the case with them,” he said. “I think the police must have finished questioning the two because they were taken from Mingaladon courthouse to Insein Prison straightaway.”
Than Zaw Aung also confirmed that police had called the two journalists to the meeting, after which they were arrested.
Another lawyer will also help defend the two reporters, he said.
“How can a reporter gathering news be charged under the Official Secrets Act?” said veteran news photographer Khin Maung Win. “Of course, a reporter will look for information anywhere he can, and he shouldn't be charged like this. I’ve worked in the media world for 20 years and have never seen a case like this. It's a huge blow to media freedom.”
The journalists’ next court hearing is scheduled for Jan. 10.
Protest in Pyay
About 100 journalists, lawyers, young people, and farmers staged a protest in Pyay (formerly called Prome), 180 miles north of Yangon, demanding the release of Thet Oo Maung and Kyaw Soe Oo and calling for press freedom in Myanmar.
Protesters sat draped in chains before a statue of General Aung San, Myanmar’s independence hero and father of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, in a public square in the town center.
“Some reporters from Yangon joined about 30 local reporters in the protest, said Tharlon Zaung Htet, a member of the Myanmar Committee for the Protection of Journalists who participated in the demonstration.
“We chained our hands and collected signatures from passersby to show our solidarity with the arrested journalists,” he told RFA, adding that similar protests would be held soon in other cities.
Domestic and international rights groups as well as the governments of some western nations have called for the reporters’ immediate and unconditional release.
Reported by Htet Arkar, Thiri Min Zin, and Tin Aung Khine for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.