Two Reuters journalists were officially charged on Wednesday with obtaining state secrets while reporting on a military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine state, an offense that carries a maximum jail term of 14 years.
Police arrested Thet Oo Maung, also known as Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, on Dec. 12 for violating the colonial-era Official Secrets Act by allegedly 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.
Some Rohingya have accused security forces of committing atrocities against them during the crackdown, which was triggered by deadly attacks by Rohingya insurgents on police outposts.
Than Zaw Aung, an attorney representing the journalists, told RFA’s Myanmar Service following the journalists' second hearing in Yangon that the defense team submitted a bail petition to be considered at the next hearing on Jan. 23, hoping that the judge will grant an exception for what is otherwise not a bailable offense.
“We have a total of 25 witnesses,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “We are copying documents and getting ready to study this case. We have applied for bail today. Lawyers from both sides will argue on the bail issue at the next hearing.”
The court said it would consider the request and make a decision at that time.
Than Zaw Aung also insisted that the arrests amounted to entrapment by police, who had contacted them for a meeting in Yangon to hand over documents about the situation in northern Rakhine.
After Thet Oo Maung and Kyaw Soe Oo met over a meal with two officers who had been stationed in the conflict zone, they were taken into custody by other policemen.
“Actually, their arrest was entrapment,” Than Zaw Aung said. “Police called them to meet, gave them some documents, and they were arrested as soon as the police left. They didn’t even have a chance to see what the documents were.”
“These two policemen are now witnesses for the plaintiff’s side,” he said.
About 25 people, including international diplomats and family members of the accused men, were permitted inside the courthouse under tight security, he said.
Thet Oo Maung’s wife, Pan Ei, said they could only smile at each another in court.
“He is not very well and didn’t have time to eat while he was in court,” she said.
Upon leaving the courthouse, Thet Oo Maung said, “We have been arrested and charged in an unfair manner.”
Kyaw Soe Oo shouted: “Please tell the people to protect our journalists. We need to work for justice.”
'Journalism is not a crime'
Outside the courthouse, a group of Myanmar journalists, some wearing black T-shirts that said “journalism is not a crime” gathered to protest the detentions.
“We conducted a campaign for these reporters in front of the court today,” said Tharlon Zaung Htet, member of Myanmar's Committee for the Protection of Journalists. “We tried to show that we are standing together with them and that we stand by them.”
“We have complained to authorities because [their arrest] was entrapment,” he said. “We are thinking about doing campaigns during every hearing they have. We will also do sticker campaigns every two weeks in public, telling people that their arrest constitutes entrapment.”
Myint Kyaw, a member of the Myanmar Press Council, an independent organization that advocates for the news media, agreed that authorities entrapped the two reporters.
“It was planned entrapment,” he said. “Even though international groups have called for the reporters’ freedom, Myanmar authorities haven’t responded but are continuing to do what they want. It is not good for press freedom, and the images of the government and the military will be damaged.”
Rights groups and media organizations have blasted Myanmar’s civilian government led by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi for continuing to use colonial-era laws to threaten and intimidate journalists who criticize the administration or the military.
“Reporters shouldn’t be arrested under a democratic government,” said Zaw Thet Htwe of the Myanmar Press Union, a former sports journal editor and political prisoner.
“We don’t know whether these reporters used illegal government documents or if it was entrapment,” he said. “The government and Home Affairs Ministry should release more information to make the case more transparent.”
Pyay Thway Naing, editor-in-chief of Khit Yanant Magazine, said that the government’s use of laws to arrest journalists is forcing the media to censor themselves.
“We are in a situation where we must conduct self-censorship instead of having more freedom in press,” he said.
Other countries weigh in
In a related development, a spokesman for the Japanese government said on Wednesday that officials want to discuss the issue of the detained Reuters reporters with the Myanmar government, including during Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono’s visit to the Southeast Asian nation this week, Reuters reported.
"The Japanese government has conveyed its concern about this matter to the government of Myanmar and, going forward, wants to discuss and make appeals at appropriate opportunities, including Foreign Minister Kono’s visit to Myanmar,” Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, was quoted as saying in response to a question.
Suga also noted the importance of guaranteeing freedom of expression and basic human rights in all countries, the report said.
The U.S., France, and Denmark expressed dismay after Wednesday’s court hearing and issued calls for the government to release Thet Oo Maung and Kyaw Soe Oo.
“We are disappointed by today’s decision to pursue charges against Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo under the Official Secrets Act,” the U.S. embassy in Myanmar said in a brief statement. “For democracy to succeed and flourish, journalists must be able to do their jobs. We call for their immediate release.”
France’s Foreign Ministry in a statement called “for the respect of their fundamental rights, their immediate release by the Burmese authorities and the free access of the media” to Rakhine state.
Denmark’s embassy in Myanmar issued a statement saying that it is “indeed very disappointing that an old draconian law from the colonial era is being used by a democratically elected government to suppress press freedom.”
Reported by Htet Arkar, Kyaw Zaw Win, Tin Aung Khine, and Thinn Thiri for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.