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Arrests of reporters in Myanmar add to fears about press freedom

Rohingya refugees from Myanmar after crossing the border illegally near Amtoli, Bangladesh, August 31, 2017.
Rohingya refugees from Myanmar after crossing the border illegally near Amtoli, Bangladesh, August 31, 2017. Adam Dean/The New York Times

Arrests of reporters in Myanmar add to fears about press freedom

YANGON, Myanmar — Two journalists with the Reuters news agency have been arrested in Myanmar and accused of trying to illegally obtain official documents, the government said Wednesday.

The two reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were arrested Tuesday night in northern Yangon. The Ministry of Information said on Facebook that they had tried to obtain information relating to Rakhine state in western Myanmar. A campaign of killings, rape and arson carried out in Rakhine by Myanmar’s military has driven more than 620,000 Rohingya Muslims across the border into Bangladesh since August.

The ministry said the reporters had been accused of violating Myanmar’s sweeping Official Secrets Act, which dates from 1923, when the country, also known as Burma, was under British rule. The two could face up to 14 years in prison. Two police officers were also charged, according to the ministry, which posted a photo of the reporters in handcuffs.

Stephen J. Adler, the president and editor-in-chief of Reuters, said the journalists had been “reporting on events of global importance in Myanmar” and called for their immediate release. “We are outraged by this blatant attack on press freedom,” he said in a statement.

The US Embassy called the arrests “highly irregular” and said they occurred after the reporters were invited to meet with police officials.

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

Myint Kyaw, a member of the Myanmar Press Council, an independent organisation that advocates for the news media, said that 80 to 90 percent of government documents were considered confidential or secret under the Official Secrets Act.

“We are very concerned about the arrests of these two journalists,” he said. “Very few documents are public documents. We don’t have a Freedom of Information Act in our country yet.”

He said that parliament had considered modifying the law in 2014, but that the changes were opposed by the Home Affairs Ministry, which is under military control.

Reuters said that Wa Lone joined the news agency in June 2016 and has covered a range of stories, including the Rohingya crisis in Rakhine. Kyaw Soe Oo began working for Reuters in September.

Press advocates and human rights activists expressed concern that the arrests were part of a growing crackdown on press freedom in recent months.

In November, a judge sentenced two foreign journalists, their interpreter and their driver to two months in prison on charges of filming with a drone without official permission. The journalists, Mok Choy Lin, a Malaysian citizen, and Lau Hon Meng, a Singaporean citizen, were on assignment for TRT World, Turkey’s state broadcaster.

In June, the military arrested three journalists who had been reporting on an event organised by a rebel army in northern Shan state. The three were accused of violating another colonial-era law, against unlawful association. They were released after more than two months in custody.

“While the circumstances of the arrest of the two Reuters journalists remain unclear, their detention comes on the heels of the arrests of journalists in multiple parts of Burma under a variety of charges,” said Richard Weir, a researcher with Human Rights Watch.

“Three journalists arrested and later released in Shan state by the military earlier this year were merely arrested for doing their jobs,” he added. “Journalists across Burma have also come under increasing pressure for criticising the government and military.”

Richard C. Paddock/The New York Times

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