A coalition of a dozen Burmese media advocacy groups has come to the defence of two local Reuters journalists arrested Tuesday in Yangon, calling on the government to respect their right to gather information and urging that they be released from custody.
The reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were detained in Yangon’s Mingalardon Township, allegedly in possession of sensitive government documents, which could see the pair imprisoned for up to 14 years under Burma’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act.
“We understand that journalists cannot publicise any information that would endanger national security. However, it is a threat to press freedom to accuse the two journalists of having violated the Official Secrets Act after only being found to have in their possession some of the information,” reads a statement from the groups, including the Myanmar Journalist Association, the Myanmar Journalists’ Network and the Myanmar Women Journalists’ Society.
The statement went on to say that at a time when Burma faces increased scrutiny from the international media over the volatile situation in Rakhine State, the detention of the two journalists “further harms the dignity of the government.”
“Hereby, we demand that the authorities make announcements in a transparent manner regarding the arrest of the two journalists and release the pair,” it concluded.
Reuters has been at the forefront of reportage on the latest crisis in Rakhine State, where press access has been severely restricted since late August.
The wife of Wa Lone, Pan Ei Mon, said their home in Yangon’s Mayangone Township was raided on Wednesday night, with police officers seizing a laptop and external hard drive from the premises.
Two police officers were also arrested in connection with the case — Deputy Police Major Moe Yan Naing and Police Sergeant Khin Maung Lin.
Criticism both inside the country and beyond Burma’s borders continued to grow on Thursday, two days after the arrests were made.
“We are outraged by this blatant attack on press freedom. We call for authorities to release them immediately,” said Stephen J. Adler, president and editor-in-chief of Reuters, who described the detained duo as “reporting on events of global importance in Myanmar.”
The US Embassy in Yangon also spoke out on Tuesday’s “highly irregular arrests,” in a statement seemingly indicating that the two reporters were lured into their legal predicament.
“We are deeply concerned by the highly irregular arrests of two Reuters reporters after they were invited to meet with police officials in Yangon last night,” it said on Wednesday. “For a democracy to succeed, journalists need to be able to do their jobs freely. We urge the government to explain these arrests and allow immediate access to the journalists.”
The European Union’s delegation to Burma piled on, saying: “[W]e call on the Myanmar authorities to ensure the full protection of their rights. Media freedom is the foundation of any democracy.”
Calls from DVB to Zaw Htay, a government spokesperson who confirmed to Reuters that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have been detained, went unanswered on Thursday.
Aung Hla Tun, vice chairman of the Myanmar Press Council, told DVB that the council had been left in the dark on the detained reporters’ situation.
“The image of the country has been affected by this case. More pressure from the international community will come,” he said.
And indeed, on Thursday UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres weighed in, tying the journalists’ arrest to their work in the highly sensitive Rakhine State conflict zone.
“It is clearly a concern in relation to the erosion of press freedom in the country,” he said during a news conference in Tokyo.
“And probably the reason why these journalists were arrested is because they were reporting on what they have seen in relation to this massive human tragedy,” he added.