Reuters said it is “deeply disappointed” that two of its reporters have been charged under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act in Myanmar for “doing their jobs” while investigating the alleged massacre of Rohingya Muslims.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo both pleaded not guilty after charges of obtaining secret documents were brought against them today. They told Judge Ye Lwin they had “followed journalistic ethics”, according to Reuters.
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The men have already been detained for almost seven months while preliminary hearings took place to decide if they should be charged. They now face a maximum of 14 years in prison if convicted.
Lone and Soe Oo were arrested on 12 December last year while working on an investigation into the alleged murder of ten Rohingya Muslim men in the village of Inn Din in Rakhine state, Myanmar.
Lone told reporters after the hearing today: “We will face the court. We will not retreat, give up or be shaken by this.”
Stephen Adler, Reuters president and editor-in-chief, said: “We are deeply disappointed that the court declined to end this protracted and baseless proceeding against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.
“These Reuters journalists were doing their jobs in an independent and impartial way, and there are no facts or evidence to suggest that they’ve done anything wrong or broken any law.
“They should be released and reunited with their families, friends, and colleagues. Today’s decision casts serious doubt on Myanmar’s commitment to press freedom and the rule of law.”
According to Reuters, the judge said the court had filed charges against both reporters under section 3.1 (c) of the Official Secrets Act to probe the prosecution’s allegations that they collected and obtained secret documents pertaining to security forces with the intention to harm national security.
Last week, prosecutor Kyaw Min Aung said the documents, held by the reporters when they were arrested, detailed security force movements, while they also possessed top secret and confidential documents on their mobile phones.
Lone and Soe Oo have told relatives they were arrested almost immediately after being handed some rolled up papers at a restaurant in Yangon by two policemen they had never met before.
In April, Police Captain Moe Yan Naing testified in court that officers had been ordered to plant secret documents on Lone.
Defence lawyer Khin Maung Zaw told reporters today: “Naturally, I’m not satisfied… not happy. But I’m not losing hope. We will struggle… and in the end we will have a happy ending.”
The trial phase of the case now begins, during which defence lawyers will summon witnesses before the judge, who will then deliver a verdict.
The case has been adjourned to 16 July and both reporters will be called to testify at the next hearing, Maung Zaw said.
The reporters have been supported by press freedom groups globally.
The International Federation of Journalists said the court’s decision was a blow to press freedom in Myanmar and demanded the reporters’ immediate release.
A statement from the group said: “Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are victims of an entrapment scam by police.
“The Myanmar government has not only failed to protect Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo for investigating human rights abuses, but has politically and cynically used the country’s justice system to punish them and send a warning to other reporters that press freedom comes with restrictions and severe punishment.
“The NLD-led [National League for Democracy party] government has demonstrated it will not protect journalists for doing their job by investigating crimes against humanity.”
Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières) called the reporters’ detention “patently arbitrary”.
RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said today: “The refusal to dismiss the case against the journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo is indicative of a judicial system that follows orders and a failed transition to democracy in Myanmar.
“As a result of the decision to proceed with this trial, despite the many inconsistencies and the undeniable evidence of the two journalists’ innocence that came to light in the preliminary hearings, the chances of seeing a free and independent press emerge in Myanmar have declined significantly.”
Reuters said the prosecutors in the case were unable to be contacted for comment on Monday.
Picture: Reuters/Ann Wang