Myanmar’s National Human Rights Commission on Friday called on authorities to grant family access to two detained Reuters journalists who have been remanded in custody on charges of violating the Official Secrets Act.
Commissioner Yu Lwin Aung told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the independent 11-member body that investigates complaints of possible human rights violations will issue a statement about the detentions as a first step and then send letters to President Htin Kyaw and the Ministry of Home Affairs.
Authorities arrested Thet Oo Maung, also known as Wa Lone, and Kyaw Soe Oo on Dec. 12 for allegedly 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. If found guilty, they could be sentenced to up to 14 years in prison.
“We can’t interfere in the judicial sector and don’t have any rights to do it,” he said, adding that the Myanmar Journalist Network has informed the commission that the families of the detained reporters haven’t seen them since they were arrested.
“No one knows where they are and what their health conditions are,” he said. “Even their lawyers can’t see them. Because of this information, seven commission members held a meeting this morning and decided to release a statement because the issue is related to human rights.”
“It seems the authorities who have detained these reporters haven’t recognized that what they are doing to them is a kind of violation of human rights,” he said. “We have been working to educate these authorities, but it isn’t enough. I believe it’s our duty to educate these authorities about human rights.”
Myint Kyaw from the Myanmar Journalist Network, said it is troubling for both the reporters’ families as well as for other journalists not knowing the fate of the reporters.
“The family members are worried because they are their family; but for reporters, we are worried because we are getting a message from authorities that they can do whatever they want to us,” he told RFA.
“Reporters are fearful and reluctant to get news now because of what’s happened with the detained reporters,” he said “It is something to worry about, and it can hurt press freedom.”
The Myanmar Journalist Network is one of a dozen media organizations that has called on the government to free the reporters and has said that they reject their arrest because it poses a threat to press freedom.
Reuters reported on Friday that the two reporters have appeared in court and been remanded in custody, citing a police spokesman. The report also said that Pan Ei Mon, Thet Oo Maung’s wife, said police informed her on Thursday that both men were well and that she was allowed to leave food and clothes for them.
Calls for release
The treatment of the two journalists adds to the global public relations troubles of democracy icon and de facto Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is already under fire for her handling of the Rakhine state conflict that the two men were reporting on when they were detained.
An estimated 655,000 Rohingya have fled a brutal military crackdown in northern Rakhine that many world figures say amounts to ethnic cleansing.
Rights groups, Myanmar journalist associations, the European Union, the U.S. embassy in Yangon, and officials from other countries have called for the immediate and unconditional release of the pair who were working on stories about the violence.
No information on the journalists’ whereabouts has been released, and their families have been prevented from seeing them, leading some rights groups to fear that the two have been forcibly “disappeared.”
“Burmese authorities should immediately release the two Reuters journalists whose detentions appear aimed at stopping independent reporting of the ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement issued on Wednesday.
“Their secret, incommunicado detention lays bare government efforts to silence media reporting on critical issues,” he said.
President Htin Kyaw authorized police to proceed with a case against Thet Oo Maung and Kyaw Soe Oo on the same day that the spokesman for Myanmar’s ruling National League for Democracy party described their arrest as “entrapment.”
Lawsuit against journal
The arrests of the two Reuters reporters are the latest in a string of detentions of and defamation lawsuits against journalists in Myanmar since de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her civilian-led National League for Democracy (NLD) party came to power in April 2016.
On Thursday, a court in Tanintharyi region’s Dawei township said it will proceed with a regional government’s defamation lawsuit against the Tanintharyi Weekly Journal for publishing a satirical article that some perceive to have insulted regional Chief Minister Le Le Maw.
Aye Lu, deputy director of southern Myanmar’s Tanintharyi region is suing the journal over the piece “Politicking with a Smile” published on Nov. 20, which has been interpreted as an attack on Le Le Maw.
The article describes how a female village administrator campaigning to be reelected was ridiculed by residents for admitting that she did not know how to run a ward. It seemed to allude to a previous admission to local media by Le Le Maw that she did not know how to run a regional administration.
“We have known that we are subject to a lawsuit filing, but we haven’t received any official notice from court yet,” said journal spokesman Myo Aung. “We also don’t know what we could be charged with.”
If the journal is found guilty of defamation under Article 25(b) of the Media Law enacted under former president Thein Sein’s administration, the journal can be fined 300,000-1 million kyats (U.S. $220-$730).
RFA was unable to reach the regional government for comment on the lawsuit.
The Tanintharyi Weekly Journal is part of Dawei Watch, an underground news agency that covers the controversial Dawei Special Economic Zone in southeastern Myanmar and serves as source of news for local communities.
In July, Myanmar’s military filed a defamation suit in Yangon against the editor and columnist of the independent newspaper The Voice Daily under Article 25(b) of the Media Law for publishing a satirical article mocking a military propaganda film.
It was the first such case in which journalists have been sued under the 2014 statute.
By Thet Su Aung, Thinn Thiri, Waiyan Moe Myint and Kyaw Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.