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

Journalists Wa Lone (left) and Kyaw Soe Oo, who are based in Myanmar, pose for a picture at the Reuters office in Yangon, on Dec 11. 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 (Dec 19) that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were being detained in Yangon, were "in good condition" and had not been subject to "illegal questioning".

A number of governments, 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 their 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 the 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 that has seen an estimated 655,000 Rohingya Muslims flee from a fierce military crackdown on militants in the western state of Rakhine.

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

A number of governments, including the United States, Canada and Britain, and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, as well as a host of journalists' and human rights' groups, have criticised the arrests as an attack on press freedom and called on Myanmar to release the two men.

The US State Department on Tuesday called for their immediate release.

"We've been... following the cases of the two reporters, the Reuters reporters, very closely. We're deeply concerned about their detention. We do not know their whereabouts. That is of concern also," State Department spokesman Heather Nauert told a news briefing. "Today I want to make it clear that we're calling for their immediate release."

On Monday, the spokeswoman for the European Union's foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini described the arrests as "a cause of real concern".

"Freedom of the press and media is the foundation and a cornerstone of any democracy," the spokesman said.

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

About 20 local reporters belonging to the Protection Committee for Myanmar Journalists (PCMJ) posted pictures on Tuesday of themselves wearing black shirts as a sign of protest. They said their act was meant "to signify the dark age of media freedom".

"By wearing black shirts, all journalists should show unity," said Mr Tha Lun Zaung Htet, a producer and presenter at DVB Debate TV and a leading member of the PCMJ. "We must fight for press freedom with unity."

But most journalists in Yangon did not take part in the campaign. Mr Mya Hnin Aye, senior executive editor at the Voice Weekly, said few participated because the arrested journalists work for foreign media, much of whose "reporting on the Rakhine issue is biased".

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

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

The authorities have not allowed the journalists any contact with their families, a lawyer or Reuters since their arrest.

The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) called on the authorities to immediately disclose the whereabouts of the pair.

"All detainees must be allowed prompt access to a lawyer and to family members," Mr Frederick Rawski, the ICJ's Asia-Pacific Regional Director, said in a statement on Monday.

"Authorities are bound to respect these rights in line with Myanmar law and the State's international law obligations."

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono on Tuesday said freedom of the press was vital and that Japan was closely monitoring the situation, but he did not call for the journalists' release.

Human Rights Now Secretary-General Kazuko Ito told Reuters that Japan should send a stronger message about the arrests.

Ito said that by not joining in international calls for the journalists' release, Japan might be sending a message that it was ok for the Myanmar government to violate human rights.

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