A judge has refused bail to two Reuters reporters charged with illegal possession of state secrets while reporting on the ongoing Rohingya crisis in Rakhine state.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, reporters with Reuters, have been charged under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act for possessing confidential documents, in a case that observers and media workers warn is symptomatic of a lack of freedom of expression under Myanmar’s democratically elected government. If convicted, the pair face up to 14 years in prison.
At a hearing in Yangon today, their third, the judge denied the defense’s application for bail and heard testimony from prosecution witnesses. At a hearing last month, the prosecution’s first witness, a police official, told the court that the documents contained information regarding police force strength and munitions in Rakhine State’s Maungdaw district, near the Bangladeshi border. But family members and rights groups say they were entrapped by Myanmar police.
“We are disappointed that the court denied bail for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo,” Reuters president Stephen Adler said in a statement. “We believe the court proceedings will demonstrate their innocence and Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo will be able to return to their jobs reporting on events in Myanmar.”
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have now been detained for six weeks. They were arrested last month while investigating a brutal campaign of violence by Myanmar’s military that has engulfed western Rakhine State and driven an estimated 688,000 Muslim Rohingya to neighboring Bangladesh.
Myanmar contends that the “clearance operations,” are a legitimate counterinsurgency campaign in response to deadly attacks by Rohingya militants. However, the U.N.’s top human rights official has said the campaign resembles “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Last week, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the crisis is even “worse” than it has been portrayed in the media.
The reporters met police officers for dinner in Yangon believing they were chasing a lead. Instead, they told family members, they were handed documents and almost immediately arrested. A senior ruling party official has suggested that they were set up, while rights groups have argued that the case is intended to intimidate other journalists from investigating the military’s conduct in Rakhine. The State Department has called for their “immediate and unconditional release.”
Myanmar government spokesperson Zaw Htay previously rejected the idea of the government interfering in the case to hasten the journalists’ release, telling the Associated Press that “it’s up to the court to decide.”
On Thursday, an apparent petrol bomb attack caused minimal damage to the lakeside villa of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, the residence where the Nobel laureate was held under house arrest for 15 years. She was not in residence at the time.