Myanmar reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were formally indicted by prosecutors in Yangon on Wednesday for breaching the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which could sentence them to a maximum of 14 years in prison, their lawyer said.
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The pair 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 journalists, other than that they were arrested for allegedly possessing classified documents related to Rakhine state.
A brutal army crackdown in Rakhine has forced almost 650,000 Rohingya to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh.
“We never made any mistakes, they are trying to stop us and intimidate us,” said 31-year-old Wa Lone, as eight police officers ushered him out of the court, his tearful wife still clutching his hand.
“We will face the charges filed against us,” he added.
A request for bail has been submitted to the court, which the judge will review at the next hearing on January 23, the lawyer said.
‘Blatant attack on press freedom’
Myanmar’s Ministry of Information said the reporters “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media”.
The families of the reporters – both of whom had been working on stories about the military’s clearance operation in Rakhine state – say they were lured into a trap.
“We are extremely disappointed that the authorities seek to prosecute Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo under Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act,” said Stephen J Adler, president and editor-in-chief of Reuters. “We view this as a wholly unwarranted, blatant attack on press freedom.”
Their arrests had been widely condemned by rights groups and media watchdogs.
“The proceedings against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are a transparent attempt to intimidate the media and to prevent coverage of the unfolding tragedy of the Rohingya people in Myanmar’s Rakhine state,” said Steven Butler, Asia programme coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Reporting on the Rohingya crisis has proven difficult for members of the foreign press, who are prohibited from entering the conflict-torn areas of northern Rakhine and rarely granted interviews with top government officials.
Daniel Bastard, Asia Pacific region head for Reporters Without Borders, said the pair were “just being used as scapegoats to shut down the mouths of courageous journalists.
“There is deep concern and it is very worrying to see that press freedom in Myanmar is really declining,” he told Al Jazeera from the French capital, Paris.
On his way out of the courtroom in north Yangon on Wednesday, Wa Lone learned that his wife was expecting their first child.
If found guilty, his first-born would be 14 years old by the time he is released from prison.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are not the first journalists to be charged under a colonial-era law in the last 12 months.
In 2017, 11 journalists and one media collaborator were arrested in Myanmar, according to Reporters Without Borders.
Both the 1908 Unlawful Association Act and 1934 Aircraft Act were employed in 2017 to detain journalists reporting on conflict in Myanmar.
Additional reporting by Katie Arnold: @kate_arno