A media watchdog has accused authorities in Myanmar of acts of intimidation against journalists, as it renewed a call for the “immediate and unconditional release” of two Reuters reporters arrested last week.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were taken into custody on December 12 after being invited to dine with police officers on the outskirts of Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, according to Reuters.
The news agency said that little is known of the accusations against the pair, other than that they were detained for allegedly possessing classified documents related to Rakhine State, where a brutal army crackdown has forced almost 650,000 Rohingya to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh.
The Myanmar nationals’ whereabouts were still unknown on Monday, almost a week after their detention, which has been widely condemned by the UN, human rights groups and a number of foreign governments.
The office of Myanmar’s President Htin Kyaw has since authorised the police to proceed with the case against the two reporters, according to media reports on Monday.
In a statement to Al Jazeera on Monday, Daniel Bastard, Asia coordinator for Reporters Without Borders, said Myanmar’s government had yet to provide an acceptable legal basis for the two reporters’ arrest.
“We still don’t know what is the nature of the so-called secret documents the two journalists were allegedly in possession of,” he said, adding that the authorities’ reluctance to “comment on these documents reinforce our impression that this is all just a pretext to intimidate journalists”.
Myanmar’s Ministry of Information last week described the documents as “important and secret”, saying that they “related to Rakhine State and security forces”.
It also released a photo of the pair in handcuffs standing behind a table bearing papers, mobile phones and currency, and said they were being investigated under the Official Secrets Act, which was passed in 1923 and carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years.
Last week, Stephen J Adler, Reuters’ Editor-In-Chief, described the pair’s arrest as “a blatant attack on press freedom”, while Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary-general, expressed “concern” about “the erosion of press freedom in the country”.
“Probably the reason why these journalists were arrested is because they were reporting on what they have seen in relation to this massive tragedy,” he added, referring to the mass exodus of the Rohingya ethnic minority.
Myanmar’s military began its violent campaign against the majority-Muslim Rohingya in late August, following a series of alleged attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on military posts in Rakhine State.
Fleeing Rohingya refugees accused the security forces of responding with a campaign of arson and murder in a bid to force them out of Myanmar. These allegations are supported by rights groups monitoring the situation, while the UN has called Myanmar’s campaign against the Rohingya “ethnic cleansing”.
The mistreatment of the Rohingya, often described as the world’s most persecuted minority, has emerged as the most contentious human rights issue in Myanmar, a South East Asian country making a transition to democracy after decades of military rule.
Zaw Htay, a spokesman for Myanmar’s president’s office told local media on Monday that Htin Kyaw, a close ally of the country’s de facto leader and Novel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, had approved the investigation against the two reporters.
“The Ministry of Home Affairs sought permission from the President’s Office for the charge,” he was quoted as saying by the Myanmar Times newspaper.
“With the approval of the President’s Office, the charge was filed.”
Reuters said it was not clear if Htin Kyaw or Aung San Suu Kyi had been personally involved in the decision, or if other officials had signed off on the president’s behalf.
The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) has meanwhile condemned Myanmar’s use of British-colonial era laws to prosecute journalists. The organisation said Myanmar had invoked such laws in at least three cases against the press this year.
“The abuse of archaic laws like the Official Secrets Act must end,” Frederick Rawski, the ICJ’s Asia Pacific Regional Director, said in a statement on Monday.
“The treatment of these reporters threatens freedom of expression. The harsh penalties they face sends a clear message to other journalists that they could face the same consequences for doing their job,” he added.
At least 11 journalists have reportedly been detained in Myanmar this year, although some have since been released.
Local newspaper Mizzima, in an editorial on Saturday, added its voice to the chorus of concern saying a civilian government headed by Aung San Suu Kyi had “raised hopes of a significant improvement in respect for media freedom”.
However, it warned that the case against the Reuters journalists and others “may severely damage the reputation of a government at a time when it is already facing severe criticism at home and abroad over its handling of the Rakhine crisis”.
The Protection Committee for Myanmar Journalists, a group of local reporters, said on Saturday that its members would wear black in solidarity with Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.
"We must have freedom of press" #Myanmar journalists show support for the two #Reuters reporters who were arrested last week after they were invited to meet police officers for dinner in Yangon. We still don't know where they are. Photo by @annwphoto pic.twitter.com/k9lRUCiRAr
— Yimou Lee (@YimouLee) December 18, 2017
Journalists and other rights groups in the country and abroad have also taken to social media to express their concern.
Jonah Fisher, a BBC journalist who used to cover Myanmar, criticised Aung San Suu Kyi saying if she “can’t do anything about these journalists – what did she agree to go into govt for?”
I think people get that Suu Kyi can't do much about Rakhine… but if she also can't do anything about these journalists – what did she agree to go into govt for? https://t.co/n43NIKR5W8
— Jonah Fisher (@JonahFisherBBC) December 18, 2017
“Journalists are being treated like spies,” lamented Benedict Dunant, a freelance journalist based in Yangon.
#Myanmar reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have been charged under a law imposed by a long-dead colonial regime to counter foreign intrigue. In short, journalists are being treated like spies.https://t.co/c0kcVfBLk4
— Ben Dunant (@BenedictDunant) December 18, 2017
Antoni Slodkowski, the chief of the Reuters bureau in Myanmar, described Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo as “brave, kind and courageous reporters”.
These are @walone4 and Kyaw Soe Oo. Brave, kind and courageous reporters who got arrested doing their job.
— Antoni Slodkowski (@slodek) December 14, 2017
Many others also condemned what they called a widening crackdown on the press.
— Matthew Smith (@matthewfsmith) December 14, 2017
Some reasons journalists have been arrested in Myanmar this year:
-Reporting on drug-burning ceremony
-Writing satirical essay about pro-army movie
-Suggesting a monk should not praise assassins
-Flying drone for 5 minutes near parliament
-Meeting police sources for dinner
— Joe Freeman (@joefree215) December 17, 2017
"Rather than abusing colonial-era laws in attempts to silence news on the Rohingya refugee crisis, #Myanmar should allow journalists to report freely, including in Rakhine state.” @Joelcpj pic.twitter.com/hDY3XFpsYN
— Committee to Protect Journalists (@pressfreedom) December 15, 2017