Having been remanded for a second 14-day period at a hearing last month, the case of two Reuters journalists began in earnest on Wednesday at Yangon’s Northern District Court, with the prosecution confirming that charges under Burma’s Official Secrets Act would be brought against them.
The two reporters, Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, were detained in Yangon by Burmese authorities on 12 December, allegedly in possession of sensitive government documents. The pair face up to 14 years’ imprisonment under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act.
Ahead of the hearing Wednesday, Burmese journalists gathered outside the courthouse — several wearing black T-shirts that read “Journalism is not a crime” — in protest of the two men’s detention. Others held banners calling for their immediate release.
Than Zaw Aung, a lawyer for the two arrested journalists, said a bail petition had been submitted and that the defence would be given an opportunity to argue the case for bail at their next hearing on 23 January. Than Zaw Aung said in order for the application to be approved, the judge would need to make an exception to the provision under which Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have been charged, which is otherwise not a bailable offence.
“According to the section, the two journalists cannot get bail. That’s why it’s depending on the judge,” he said.
An added element of uncertainty as the trial moves forward is the status and location of two police officers whom the government says are also being charged under the Official Secrets Act, but who are listed as witnesses for the prosecution as well.
“We don’t know yet where they are even though they were included on the witnesses’ list,” said Than Zaw Aung. According to the defence team, 25 witnesses are set to testify in the trial, most of whom are police officers.
Unlike a hearing two weeks ago, the two defendants left the courthouse on Wednesday in handcuffs, prompting tears from family members.
“He wanted to hold his baby but he couldn’t because of the handcuffs,” said Chit Su, the wife of Kyaw Soe Oo.
The family of Wa Lone has sent a letter to State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi regarding the detention of the two journalists and are hoping for a response from the country’s de facto civilian leader.
“They arrested us and took action against us because we were trying to reveal the truth,” Reuters quoted Wa Lone as saying as he and Kyaw Soe Oo were led out of court on Wednesday.
The Danish Embassy in Yangon meanwhile has joined a growing chorus of calls for the two journalists’ release.
“It is indeed very disappointing that an old draconian law from the colonial era is being used by a democratically elected government to suppress press freedom,” read a statement from the mission dated Wednesday.
“An essential part of any democracy is a free and independent press which can help ensure that the public is kept informed of all important developments in the country, including those undertaken by the military, and hold the Government accountable to the people whom it was elected to serve.”
Other foreign governments including the United States and the European Union have also criticised the decision to arrest and prosecute the two men, warning similarly of the threat that legal action posed to press freedom.