The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has injected itself into the debate over two Reuters journalists who were detained last week, with a party official saying they should be released if not guilty of wrongdoing.
USDP spokesperson Nandar Hla Myint told DVB on Wednesday that authorities should free the reporters if they did not genuinely violate the Official Secrets Act, a colonial-era piece of legislation that carries with it a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison.
“Journalists must follow the rules and laws and they will have action taken against them if they have violated those rules and laws. For the Reuters case, they will also have action taken against them if the authorities and court find them guilty. Otherwise, they should be released,” he said.
The two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were arrested in northern Yangon on 12 December, allegedly in possession of sensitive government documents. More than a week later, the location of their detention facility remains unknown, with the reporters denied access to legal counsel and their families kept in the dark as to their whereabouts.
State media has reported that they will face charges under the Official Secrets Act, and two police officers were also detained in connection with the case.
Pan Ei Mon, the wife of Wa Lone, said she would send a letter to the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC) addressing the situation.
“I don’t know yet any updated information about my husband. I want to know where they are,” she told DVB.
Lawyer Khin Maung Zaw said he was in talks with Reuters about serving as a member of the detained journalists’ defence team, though he added that those discussions were not finalised.
“We are still discussing with Reuters to hire me. We cannot do anything if the authorities don’t allow meetings with the families or lawyers,” he said.
Also on Wednesday, the Myanmar Press Council (MPC) released a statement saying its members would like to help mediate in the case if possible, and offering to play a role as an “expert witness” if a court were to deem it appropriate.
“If necessary, the Myanmar Press Council is willing and ready to provide legal assistance for the accused reporters so that justice would be served,” read the statement.
Thiha Saw, secretary of the MPC, said authorities had allowed the chairman of the council to assist as an expert witness in the Unity Journal case, with the hoping being that it could serve in the same capacity with any charges brought against the Reuters journalists.
He was referring to the last known prosecution under the Official Secrets Act, which also involved members of the media: Four journalists and an executive from the Unity Journal were arrested in 2014 and subsequently sentenced to 10 years in prison. They were imprisoned following the journal’s publication of an article alleging the existence of a secret chemical weapons factory in central Burma.
“We won’t [publically] condemn the authorities,” Thiha Saw said on Wednesday regarding MPC involvement in the Reuters case. “But we will keep in touch with the authorities, such as the military and government. We always [engage with] the military and government but we won’t reveal what we told them.”