(Reuters) – The Myanmar government sought to charge two arrested Reuters journalists under its Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum sentence of 14 years, according to their lawyer.
Many nations, including the United States, Canada and several European countries, as well as top United Nations and EU officials have demanded the release of the reporters – Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27.
They were arrested on Dec. 12 after they had been invited to meet police officers over dinner. Family members have said the two told them they were arrested almost immediately after being handed some documents by the officers they had gone to meet.
The two had worked on Reuters coverage of a crisis in the western state of Rakhine, where – according to U.N. estimates – about 655,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled from a fierce military crackdown on militants.
Myanmar’s Ministry of Information has said the reporters “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media”.
Government spokesman Zaw Htay declined to comment on the charges but said the two had their rights under an independent judicial system.
“The judge will be decide whether they are guilty or not according to the law,” he told Reuters.
Reuters President and Editor-In-Chief Stephen J. Adler said he was extremely disappointed that the authorities were seeking to prosecute the pair.
“We view this as a wholly unwarranted, blatant attack on press freedom,” he said in a statement on Wednesday. “Our colleagues should be allowed to return to their jobs reporting on events in Myanmar. We believe time is of the essence and we continue to call for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s prompt release.”
Here are the latest comments on their detention from governments, politicians, human rights groups, journalists and press freedom advocates around the world:
— The United States said it was “deeply disappointed” by Myanmar’s decision to pursue charges under the Official Secrets Act against the two reporters.
“The media freedom that is so critical to rule of law and a strong democracy requires that journalists be able to do their jobs,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement. “We reiterate our call for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s immediate and unconditional release.”
— “Imprisonment of Reuters reporters for investigating Rohingya atrocities is a miscarriage of justice. Press freedom is essential for democracy,” U.S. Senator Edward Markey said in a Twitter post.
— Britain’s embassy in Myanmar said in a statement, “We remain deeply concerned by this case and its effect on freedom of the press, one of the key pillars of any democracy. We call again for their release.”
— France expressed its concern after the court hearing.
“We call for the respect of their fundamental rights, their immediate release by the Burmese authorities and the free access of the media to (Rakhine State),” the French foreign ministry said in a statement.
— The spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general said the U.N. team in Myanmar was following the case very closely.
“The secretary-general has repeated and will continue to repeat his concern at the erosion of press freedom in Myanmar and calling on the international community to do everything to secure the journalists’ release and freedom of the press,” said spokesman Stephane Dujarric.