RSF urges Myanmar to free two Reuters reporters

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The US Embassy in Myanmar condemned [statement] the arrests and called for the release of the journalists.

The United States has expressed "disappointment" over yesterday's court decision in Myanmar to allow prosecution of Reuter's journalists - Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo - under the Official Secrets Act and called for their "immediate and unconditional" release. If convicted the journalists could face up to 14 years in prison in Myanmar.

The reporters have told relatives they were arrested nearly immediately after being handed some documents at a restaurant by two policemen they had not met before. Government spokesperson Win Htein told the press they were likely "caught in a trap".

Prosecutors charged the journalists with possession of important secret government documents pursuant to Section 3.1 (c) [text, PDF] of the British colonial-era Official Secrets Act. "We are still far from the verdict", he said. The court took it under consideration and will decide at the next hearing on January 23, he said.

The quasi-civilian government at the time denied the story, seized copies of the newspaper and arrested four Unity reporters and its CEO.

The president authorized the initial police investigation. That they have pressed ahead indicates the limits of worldwide condemnation, which has included demands for their immediate release from Western governments, and a global media spotlight.

At the time of their arrest, the government said the officers, Police Deputy Major Moe Yan Naing and Police Sergeant Khin Maung Lin, would also face charges under the Official Secrets Act. "This clampdown on freedom of speech must end".

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"They have done absolutely nothing but carry out their legitimate work as journalists", said James Gomez, Amnesty International's Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, in a statement on Wednesday.

"We call for their release".

The Myanmar government's official position on the crisis is that Rohingya are illegal Bengali immigrants.

The ministry said they "illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media".

"The NLD government is firmly committed to freedom of expression".

Outside the courtroom, dozens of journalists dressed in black rallied in support of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, some carrying signs proclaiming "Journalism is not a crime". The case, she said, is "sensitive" for the military, because it touches on "what happened in Rakhine State", she said.

"It is indeed very disappointing that an old draconian law from the colonial era is being used by a democratically elected government to suppress press freedom", it said in a statement on Wednesday. On Monday, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists declared Aung San Suu Kyi the "Biggest Backslider in Press Freedom" in its Press Oppressors Awards.

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Then in October, three journalists and their driver were arrested for flying a drone near the parliament building in Nay Pyi Taw.

In June, the editor and a columnist at local newspaper The Voice were charged with defamation for satirizing the military.

"For democracy to succeed and flourish, journalists must be able to do their jobs".

In all cases, after protracted trials, charges were eventually dropped, indicating a pattern that many hope will hold for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.

The clause, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years, prohibits visiting places, capturing images or handling documents that "might be or is meant to be, directly or indirectly, useful to an enemy". He told VOA that the government could be using "political prisoners", including jailed journalists, as "bargaining chips" to deter renewed sanctions from Western powers over the Rohingya crisis.

"The secretary-general has repeated and will continue to repeat his concern at the erosion of press freedom in Myanmar and calling on the global community to do everything to secure the journalists' release and freedom of the press", said United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

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