Myanmar says probe of two Reuters journalists almost finished, court case to follow

Wa Lone (left) and Kyaw Soe Oo, who are based in Myanmar, pose for a picture at the Reuters office in Yangon. PHOTO: REUTERS

YANGON (REUTERS) - A spokesman for Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi said on Wednesday (Dec 20) he had been informed that the police had almost completed their investigation of two arrested Reuters journalists, after which a court case against them would begin.

Zaw Htay said the two reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, would then have access to a lawyer and be able to meet members of their families. "It will not be long. The investigation is almost done," he said by phone.

The spokesman said the Ministry of Home Affairs and police told him on Tuesday that the two men were being detained in Yangon, were "in good condition" and had not been subject to "illegal questioning". A number of governments and human rights and journalist groups have criticised Myanmar's authorities for holding the pair incommunicado since their arrest, with no access to a lawyer, colleagues and family members.

Asked if the police were respecting their human rights, Zaw Htay replied: "Yes, yes, I have told them not do those things."

"I told them to act according to the law. They guaranteed that they will act only according to the law," said Zaw Htay, who wasn't more specific.

Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, completed a week in detention on Tuesday, with no word on where they were being held as authorities proceeded with an investigation into whether they violated the country's colonial-era Official Secrets Act.

The act carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years.

The two journalists had worked on Reuters coverage of a crisis in which an estimated 655,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled from a fierce military crackdown on militants in the western state of Rakhine.

The United States and the United Nations have described the campaign as ethnic cleansing of the stateless Rohingya people.

The two journalists were arrested on Dec 12 after they were invited to dine with police officers on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar's largest city.

The Ministry of Information said last week that they had "illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media", and released a photo of them in handcuffs.

Reuters President and Editor-In-Chief Stephen J. Adler called on Tuesday for their immediate release.

"Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are journalists who perform a crucial role in shedding light on news of global interest, and they are innocent of any wrongdoing," he said in a statement.

A number of major governments and political leaders, including the United States, Canada and Britain, and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, have also called for their release.

Human Rights Watch said the detentions appeared to be "aimed at stopping independent reporting of the ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya". "Their secret, incommunicado detention lays bare government efforts to silence media reporting on critical issues," Brad Adams, the group's Asia director, said in a statement.

The Myanmar Press Council, some of whose members are government-appointed, told a news conference in Yangon that it would like to mediate in the case of the Reuters journalists.

Thiha Saw, the council's secretary, told Reuters that the arrests were not aimed at muzzling the media.

"I don't agree that this is to silence the voices of the journalists attempting to cover the Rakhine issue independently ... We don't want to generalise things," he said.

Critics have characterised the arrests as an attack on press freedom in the former Burma and, although this is not a view widely held in Myanmar, about one-third of the roughly 100 journalists at the news conference were dressed in black as a protest against the detention of the Reuters reporters.

Myanmar has seen rapid growth in independent media since censorship imposed under the former junta was lifted in 2012.

Rights groups were hopeful there would be further gains in press freedoms after Nobel peace laureate Suu Kyi came to power last year amid a transition from full military rule that had propelled her from political prisoner to elected leader.

However, advocacy groups say freedom of speech has been eroded since she took office, with many arrests of journalists, restrictions on reporting in Rakhine state and heavy use of state-run media to control the narrative.

"If the government continues to ratchet up the pressure on the independent press, media freedom in Aung San Suu Kyi's Burma will look a lot more like the media repression during the military junta," Human Rights Watch's Adams said.

Myo Nyunt, deputy director for Myanmar's Ministry of Information, told Reuters on Saturday that the case against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had nothing to do with press freedom, and said journalists have "freedom to write and speak".

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