YANGON • Two Reuters reporters accused of breaking Myanmar's secrecy law during their coverage of the Rohingya crisis must face trial, a judge said yesterday, in a ruling swiftly decried as a "black day" for press freedom in the country.
Yangon district judge Ye Lwin charged reporters Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, with breaching the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison. The journalists pleaded not guilty.
The judge said the court had filed charges against both reporters under Section 3.1(c) of the Act to probe the prosecution's allegations that they collected and obtained secret documents pertaining to the security forces with the intention to harm national security.
Proceedings will now enter the trial phase, during which defence lawyers will summon witnesses before the judge, who will then deliver a verdict, according to legal experts.
Reuters says the pair are innocent and were simply doing their job by reporting on a massacre of Rohingya Muslims in September, and has urged the court to dismiss the case. The reporters say they were entrapped by police - a version of events seemingly backed up in court by a whistle-blowing cop who testified that officers were ordered to set up the reporters.
The reporters have told relatives they were arrested almost immediately after being handed some rolled-up papers at a restaurant in northern Yangon by two policemen they had not met before.
Central to the defence's arguments is police captain Moe Yan Naing, who testified in court that he was ordered to "trap" one of the two journalists by handing them the documents as a pretext for arrest.
The officer has since been sentenced to a year in prison for violating the police force's disciplinary code, and his family evicted from their home in what the government said was an unrelated matter.
The legal action against the pair has been lambasted by rights groups and foreign observers as an assault on media freedom and an effort to stifle reporting on the Rohingya crisis.
"This is a black day for press freedom in Myanmar," said Ms Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International's director of crisis response, labelling the court decision "farcical" and "politically motivated".
Wa Lone has vowed to fight the case, saying: "We have the right to a defence. The court did not decide we are guilty."
In court, Kyaw Soe Oo denied any wrongdoing, saying: "I worked as a journalist according to the ethics."
"We are deeply disappointed that the court declined to end this protracted and baseless proceeding," said Reuters editor-in-chief Stephen Adler in a statement.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, BLOOMBERG