Authorities in Myanmar have brought formal charges against two Reuters reporters who were arrested last month as they reported on the government's treatment of the Rohingya Muslim minority. Prosecutors said Wednesday that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had violated Myanmar's Official Secrets Act — a colonial-era law that bears a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.
The two men allegedly obtained documents illegally from officials in Rakhine state, where the Myanmar military has been conducting operations that have been described as "ethnic cleansing" — by both the U.S. and United Nations — against the country's Rohingya Muslim minority. Since August, when an attack by Rohingya militants prompted the government crackdown, more than 655,000 Rohingya have fled the state for neighboring Bangladesh, just beyond Myanmar's border.
The two journalists stand accused of receiving documents illegally. Poppy McPherson, another journalist working in Southeast Asia, explained to NPR's Steve Inskeep how they were arrested:
"They were invited to dinner with a couple of police officers in Yangon, which is the commercial capital of Myanmar. And according to Reuters, they were invited to dinner with the police. They sat down, and some documents were handed over. ...
"These police officers had recently been stationed in Rakhine. They'd just returned from duty in that area.
"After the dinner, [the Reuters journalists] were arrested."
The circumstances have elicited protests the government set them up — and, as The New York Times reports, Wa Lone's wife says he never even had the opportunity to read the documents before being detained.
"This is unacceptable," Wa Lone told journalists after the court hearing Wednesday, according to The Associated Press. "I want to tell you that they are charging us like this to stop us finding the truth. Their actions are wrong and unfair."
His complaints have been echoed internationally, as well.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar released a statement saying it's "disappointed by today's decision to pursue charges."
"For democracy to succeed and flourish," the embassy said, "journalists must be able to do their jobs. We call for their immediate release."
Reuters' editor-in-chief, Stephen J. Adler, called the move "a wholly unwarranted, blatant attack on press freedom."
Earlier in the week, former President Bill Clinton lent his political capital to the calls for their release, tweeting Monday that "a free press is critical to a free society — the detention of journalists anywhere is unacceptable."
The controversy over press freedoms is unfolding against a backdrop of what the U.N. calls a "major upsurge of violence" against the Rohingya in Rakhine state.
Authorities in Myanmar have barred journalists from the region, leaving reporters to rely on Rohingya refugees' disturbing accounts of systematic murder, rape and destruction of entire villages. The international aid group Doctors Without Borders estimated at least 6,700 Rohingya Muslims were killed in the span of one month alone.
Drawing on satellite imagery, Human Rights Watch revealed the stark transformation of villages once populated by Rohingya — and now apparently burned to the ground and emptied of residents.
In a rare admission, Myanmar authorities acknowledged in a statement Wednesday that members of the military were involved in the killing of 10 people recently found in a mass grave. The Times reports the two Reuters journalists now in custody had been investigating the circumstances surrounding that same grave.
The journalists are expected to have another court hearing later this month. In the meantime, the international condemnations are unlikely to slow.
"The charges filed against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo represent a giant step backward for press freedom in Myanmar," Shawn Crispin of the Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement Wednesday.
"Such high-profile legal harassment will inevitably cause other journalists to self-censor their reporting on important stories," Crispin said. "These charges should be dropped now before any more damage is done."