Myanmar police have arrested two domestic journalists working for Reuters news agency for violating the state secrets law by allegedly illegally possessing government documents, the government and a relative of one of the men said Wednesday.
Thet Oo Maung, also known as Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, were arrested for violating Section 3 of the 1923 Official Secrets Act for allegedly intending “to send important security documents regarding security forces in Rakhine state to foreign agencies abroad,” said a statement issued by the Information Ministry.
The papers included reports, a list of weapons, and a draft map, according to the police report filed by Lieutenant Zaw Naing from the No. 8 Security Unit.
Police apprehended the pair at about 11 a.m. Tuesday on Road No. 3 in the commercial capital Yangon and took them to Htauk Kyant Police Station. They have been denied bail.
Pan Ei Mon, wife of Thet Oo Maung, confirmed the news and said Reuters had not provided any details about the men's arrests.
No one at the Reuters bureau in Yangon would comment on the matter when contacted by RFA’s Myanmar Service, and officials at the Htauk Kyant Police Station could not be reached.
The news agency’s report on the arrests quoted Reuters global communications chief Abbe Serphos as saying: “We are urgently seeking more information about the circumstances of their arrest and their current situation.”
Stephen J. Adler, the news agency’s president and editor-in-chief issued a statement that read: “Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have been reporting on events of global importance in Myanmar, and we learned today that they have been arrested in connection with their work. We are outraged by this blatant attack on press freedom. We call for authorities to release them immediately.”
Reuters has not yet informed the Myanmar Press Council about the arrests, said Myint Kyaw, a member of the organization which investigates and settles press disputes and protects media employees in Myanmar.
“We heard that they were charged because of some secret papers related to the attacks in August in Rakhine,” he told RFA, adding that it is not unusual for reporters to have documents related to the news they cover on their computers or mobile phones
“But we have to see if they used the confidential facts from the documents ethically or not for their reporting,” Myint Kyaw said, adding that he believes the men were arrested and charged become some authorities were not pleased with their reporting on northern Rakhine.
“Finding documents related to the Rakhine attacks has now become a reason to charge them,” he said. “We are worried that they will be imprisoned.”
“Both military and government authorities don’t like some of the media reports on the problems in Rakhine, and we suspect that they arrested these two reporters because they have a grudge against them.”
The MPC will hold a meeting on what to do about the two reporters after it receives details from Reuters and from the police, he said.
“Myanmar media’s freedom will definitely deteriorate if these reporters are punished,” Myint Kyaw said.
US embassy issues statement
The U.S. embassy in Yangon issued a statement on the arrest of two Reuters journalists on Wednesday.
“We are deeply concerned by the highly irregular arrests of two Reuters reporters after they were invited to meet with police officials in Yangon last night,” it said.
“For a democracy to succeed, journalists need to be able to do their jobs freely,” the statement said. “We urge the government to explain these arrests and allow immediate access to the journalists.”
Wa Lone has worked for Reuters about 18 months, covering a variety of stories, including the Rohingya refugee crisis in northern Rakhine state, while Kyaw Soe Oo has been with the news agency for about four months.
An estimated 646,000 Rohingya Muslims fled the region to neighboring Bangladesh during a recent brutal military crackdown which began on Aug. 25 following deadly attacks by Muslim militants.
Rights groups and some Rohingya have accused government soldiers of committing atrocities against them, including summary executions, rape, torture, and arson.
The Information Ministry’s statement also said authorities would take disciplinary action against two Security Police Brigade officers who had recently returned from duty in northern Rakhine state. They, too, are accused of violating the Official Secrets Act.
String of detentions, lawsuits
The arrests of the two Reuters reporters are the latest in a string of detentions of and 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.
In November, a Myanmar court sentenced two foreign journalists reporting for Turkish state media, along with their interpreter and their driver, to two months in prison for violating a law regulating the use of aircraft after they used a drone to film near parliament in the country’s capital Naypyidaw.
All four were also charged under the Import-Export Act for importing a drone, an offense that carries a three-year prison sentence.
The court in Naypyidaw’s Zabuthiri township also charged the two journalists under the country’s Immigration Act for allegedly conducting illegal activities inside Myanmar — an offense punishable by six months to five years in jail.
The number of defamation suits filed under Section 66(d), a statute that prohibits the use of the telecom network to defame people and carries a jail sentence of up to three years and a fine, has soared under the current government.
Myanmar journalists and rights groups have called for the statute’s abolishment, arguing that government and military officials are increasingly using it to silence their critics, thereby threatening freedom of the press.
Reported by Kyaw Soe Lin and Thinn Thiri for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.