Myanmar’s government said on Wednesday that police had arrested two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. The reporters had been working on stories about a military crackdown on the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine State that has caused almost 0.65 million (650,000) people to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh.
The Ministry of Information said in a statement on its Facebook page that the journalists and two policemen face 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,” said the statement, which was accompanied by a photo of the pair in handcuffs.
It said they were detained at a police station on the outskirts of Yangon, the southeast Asian nation’s main city.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo went missing on Tuesday evening after they had been invited to meet police officials over dinner.
Reuters’ driver Myothant Tun dropped them off at Battalion 8’s compound at around 8:00pm and the two reporters and two police officers headed to a nearby restaurant. The journalists did not return to the car.
The Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh say their exodus from the mainly Buddhist nation was triggered by a military counter-offensive in Rakhine state that the United Nations has branded “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
“Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have been reporting on events of global importance in Myanmar, and we learned today that they have been arrested in connection with their work,” said Stephen J. Adler, president and editor-in-chief of Reuters.
“We are outraged by this blatant attack on press freedom. We call for authorities to release them immediately,” he said.
A spokesman for Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi confirmed that the two journalists had been arrested.
“Not only your reporters, but also the policemen who were involved in that case,” spokesman Zaw Htay said. “We will take action against those policemen and also the reporters.”
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert emphasised that the agency was “following this closely.” She said that US Ambassador Scot Marciel on Wednesday had a conversation with two government officials in Myanmar who seemed “genuinely unaware” of the situation.
“We care about the safety and security of international reporters who are simply just trying to do their jobs. So we’re going to continue to try to stay on that,” Nauert said.
The US embassy in Yangon said in a statement posted on its website on Wednesday it was “deeply concerned by the highly irregular arrests of two Reuters reporters after they were invited to meet with police officials in Yangon last night”.
“For a democracy to succeed, journalists need to be able to do their jobs freely,” the embassy said. “We urge the government to explain these arrests and allow immediate access to the journalists.”
The European Union’s mission in Yangon also voiced concern.
“The EU delegation is closely following their case and we call on the Myanmar authorities to ensure the full protection of their rights,” it said in a statement. “Media freedom is the foundation of any democracy.”
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists called for the reporters’ immediate and unconditional release.
“These arrests come amid a widening crackdown which is having a grave impact on the ability of journalists to cover a story of vital global importance,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative.
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