YANGON – The arrest of two Reuters journalists in Yangon this week was a signal that press freedom is shrinking in Myanmar and the international community must do all it can to get them released, United Nations Secretary-General Mr Antonio Guterres said on December 14.
Guterres said his main concern over Myanmar was the “dramatic violations of human rights” during a military crackdown in Rakhine State that forced more than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee the country for southern Bangladesh, and the arrest of the journalists was probably related.
“It is clearly a concern in relation to the erosion of press freedom in the country,” he told a news conference in Tokyo, referring to the detention of Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo, who had been working on stories about the strife in Rakhine State.
“And probably the reason why these journalists were arrested is because they were reporting on what they have seen in relation to this massive human tragedy,” he added.
Myanmar’s Ministry of Information said in a statement on December 13 that the Reuters journalists and two policemen faced charges under the British colonial-era Official Secrets Act. The 1923 law carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years.
The reporters “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media”, the ministry said in its statement, which was accompanied by a photo of the two reporters in handcuffs.
Reuters president and Editor-in-Chief Mr Stephen Adler said in a statement on December 13: “We are outraged by this blatant attack on press freedom. We call for authorities to release them immediately.”
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo went missing on the evening of December 12 after they had been invited to meet police officials over dinner on the outskirts of Yangon.
The authorities have not confirmed where the journalists are being held and, as of the morning of December 14, Reuters had not been formally contacted by officials about their detention.
The British embassy in Yangon expressed deep concern about the arrests, and said in a statement that journalists “must be allowed to work freely and without intimidation”.
“We have raised our concerns with the Burmese government, urging them to explain these arrests and allow immediate access to the two journalists,” it said.
The Foreign Correspondents Club of Myanmar said it was “appalled” by the arrests and “gravely concerned” about the state of press freedom in the country. In a statement, it called on the authorities to ensure the safety of the reporters and allow their families to see them.
The foreign correspondents’ club in neighbouring Thailand said it was “alarmed by the use of this draconian law with its heavy penalties against journalists simply doing their jobs”.
“Wielding such a blunt legal instrument has an intimidating effect on other journalists, and poses a real threat to media freedom,” the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand said in a statement, calling for the journalists to be released.
It said journalists should be given access to Rakhine State so that they can report accurately on developments there.
Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh say their exodus from the mainly Buddhist nation was triggered by a military offensive in response to Rohingya militant attacks on security forces at the end of August.
The United Nations has branded the military’s campaign “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” of the minority Rohingya.
The military has denied all accusations of human rights abuses.
Guterres said the international community should do everything possible to secure the journalists’ release and freedom of the press in Myanmar.
He called for aid to be delivered, violence contained and reconciliation promoted in Rakhine State, and for the Rohingyas’ right of return to be fully respected and implemented.