Despite urgent calls from governments and human rights monitors, two reporters who work for the international news agency Reuters remain in detention in Burma.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested December 12 near the city of Yangon. They had been working on stories about the violence in northern Rahkhine State, from which, over the last four months, some 650,000 members of the Rohingya and other communities have fled to neighboring Bangladesh due to the atrocities committed by some in the Burmese security forces and others, that the United States has called “ethnic cleansing.”
On December 21, the United States imposed sanctions on Maung Maung Soe, the Burmese military commander who was in charge of the security operations in northern Rakhine State.
The two journalists detained by the government are reportedly facing charges under Article 3 of the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carry a penalty of up to 14 years in prison. The Burmese authorities have not been transparent in pursuing the charges.
Shortly after their arrest, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for the journalists to be released immediately. State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert has reiterated that call.
Countries around the world, including Germany, Norway, Sweden, Holland, and Canada, have made a similar demand. Australia has expressed concern and Bangladesh has denounced the arrests.
Many NGOs have also weighed in. Reporters Without Borders said there was no justification for arresting the journalists and the charges being considered were “completely spurious.” The Southeast Asian Press Alliance said the two journalists were “only doing their jobs in trying to fill the void of information on the Rohingya conflict.” Human Rights Watch condemned the arrests as an effort “to silence media reporting on critical issues.”
Speaking to reporters at the United Nations, Secretary of State Tillerson emphasized that a free press is vital to Burma’s transition to a viable democracy.
“We want Myanmar’s democracy to succeed,” he said, using an alternative name for the country. “We know it is a process that [its leaders] need to work through. This particular crisis is a real test of whether they are going to be able to affect a successful journey to democracy.”