Myanmar reporters may face 14 years in prison under colonial-era law

A photo of reporters Wa Lone (L) and Kyaw Soe Oo posted by the Ministry of Information after their arrest on Wednesday.
A photo of reporters Wa Lone (L) and Kyaw Soe Oo posted by the Ministry of Information after their arrest on Wednesday.

Two Reuters journalists have been arrested for possessing “important security documents,” Myanmar’s Ministry of Information announced on Wednesday.

The ministry’s statement said reporters Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, were charged under the Official Secrets Act for allegedly attempting “to send important security documents regarding security forces in Rakhine State to foreign agencies abroad.”

The statement revealed that they were arrested at around 11:30pm on Tuesday night while walking along a main road in Mingaladon Township.

When police searched the pair, they found two military reports  and a map of a location in Rakhine State in their possession.

The Official Secrets Act was enacted by the colonial government of India in 1923. It forbids sending, possessing, or receiving “any secret official code or password or any sketch, plan, model, article, note, document, or information” without lawful authority.

The penalty for violating the law can extend up to 14 years in prison if the violator is found to have been acting with a “purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the State.”

The ministry said charges have also bee filed against two Yangon police officers who previously worked in Rakhine State and allegedly transferred the secret documents to the reporters.

Rakhine State has been largely off-limits to journalists since the Myanmar military began conducting operations there that have displaced more than 620,000 Rohingya Muslims from the country. The UN human rights chief recently said the army’s actions contained “elements of genocide.”

A photo of the two reporters standing behind a table displaying documents, phones, and money has been posted to the Ministry of Information’s Facebook page.

After news of the arrest was released, the US embassy said it was “deeply concerned by the highly irregular arrests of two Reuters reporters.”

“For a democracy to succeed, journalists need to be able to do their jobs freely,” said the embassy’s statement. “We urge the government to explain these arrests and allow immediate access to the journalists.”

Stephen J. Adler, the president and editor-in-chief of Reuters, said in a statement: “Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have been reporting on events of global importance in Myanmar, and we learned today that they have been arrested in connection with their work. We are outraged by this blatant attack on press freedom.  We call for authorities to release them immediately.”

Harassment of journalists has increased since Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party came to power in 2016. Two foreign journalists, their Myanmar fixer, and a Myanmar driver were arrested in October for operating a drone near the parliament compound in Naypyidaw. The four were sentenced to two months in prison last month and are awaiting trial for additional charges.

A report released earlier this week by the rights group Free Expression Myanmar found that prosecutions under Myanmar’s controversial online defamation law – a law frequently used to silence critics of powerful people – have escalated since the NLD came to power.

Furthermore, it found that NLD party officials have brought more cases under the law than opposition USDP members or military officials.

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