Charging two journalists held over Rohingya massacre reporting would 'seriously undermine' free speech in Myanmar, says Reuters editor

The editor-in-chief of Reuters has said it would “seriously undermine Myanmar’s constitutional guarantee of free speech” if two of the agency’s reporters are charged with breaching the Official Secrets Act next week.

Stephen Adler, also president of Reuters, yesterday repeated his call for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo to be released.

The pair have been detained for six months while a court in Yangon, Myanmar, decides whether they will face charges that could see them facing up to 14 years in prison.

Lone (pictured) and Soe Oo were arrested on 12 December after being found possessing “secret” government papers, and have been in custody ever since as preliminary hearings took place. They both deny any wrongdoing.

The pair had been investigating the massacre of ten Rohingya Muslims in the village of Inn Din in Rakhine state, Myanmar. Reuters has since published the report they were working on, which was completed by two other journalists.

Final arguments in the pre-trial phase of the case were heard yesterday.

Adler said: “At this critical juncture, we hope that the court will decline to charge Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo and order their prompt release.

“Freedom of the press is essential in any democracy, and to charge Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo under these circumstances, without any proof of their having done anything unlawful, would seriously undermine Myanmar’s constitutional guarantee of free speech.

“We remain optimistic that the court will thoroughly consider the evidence before it and bring this proceeding to a close as quickly as possible.”

The defence case maintains that there is no basis to charge Lone and Soe Oo under the Official Secrets Act.

To charge them, the defence said in a summary of its arguments, the court would have to find evidence that the reporters “collected secret government papers to aid an enemy of and harm Myanmar”.

According to the journalists’ lawyers, the papers were not secret, having been detailed in state-run and local newspapers.

They said the prosecutor “has not identified an ‘enemy’” nor provided any proof to the court that the journalists were collaborating with an enemy.

“And at all times they were acting as journalists, not adversaries of their country,” they added.

Most critically, according to the defence case, Lone and Soe Oo did not “collect” the papers.

Instead, witnesses told the preliminary hearings that the papers were planted on the journalists by police officers moments before their arrest.

The defence said the arrest was “pre-planned and orchestrated by local police in response to their reporting about activities of security forces in the Rakhine State”.

Reuters chief counsel Gail Gove said: “The Myanmar court now has an opportunity to correct the misdeeds of local police who, more than six months ago, entrapped Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo and falsified their arrest.

“In light of Myanmar’s commitment to the rule of law and fair trial rights, we look forward to the court’s ruling on our request that it decline to charge them and dismiss this case.”

Picture: Reuters/Ann Wang

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