YANGON (Reuters) – As two Reuters journalists neared the end of a week in detention in Myanmar on Tuesday, there was no word on where they were being held as authorities proceeded with an investigation into whether they violated the country’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act.
Journalists Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, were arrested last Tuesday evening after they were invited to dine with police officers on the outskirts of Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon.
“We and their families continue to be denied access to them or to the most basic information about their well-being and whereabouts,” Reuters President and Editor-In-Chief Stephen J. Adler said in a statement calling for their immediate release.
“Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are journalists who perform a crucial role in shedding light on news of global interest, and they are innocent of any wrongdoing.”
Myanmar’s civilian president, Htin Kyaw, a close ally of government leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has authorised the police to proceed with a case against the reporters, a senior government spokesman said on Sunday.
Approval from the president’s office is needed before court proceedings can begin in cases brought under the Official Secrets Act, which has a maximum prison sentence of 14 years.
The two journalists had worked on Reuters coverage of a crisis that has seen an estimated 655,000 Rohingya Muslims flee from a fierce military crackdown on militants in the western state of Rakhine.
A number of governments, including the United States, Canada and Britain, and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, as well as a host of journalists’ and human rights’ groups, have criticised the arrests as an attack on press freedom and called on Myanmar to release the two men.
The European Union’s foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini added her voice on Monday, with her spokeswoman describing the arrests as “a cause of real concern”.
“Freedom of the press and media is the foundation and a cornerstone of any democracy,” the spokeswoman said.
Myanmar has seen rapid growth in independent media since censorship under a junta was lifted in 2012.
Rights groups were hopeful there would be further gains in press freedoms after Nobel peace laureate Suu Kyi came to power last year amid a transition from full military rule that had propelled her from political prisoner to elected leader.
However, advocacy groups say freedom of speech has been eroded since she took office, with many arrests of journalists, restrictions on reporting in Rakhine state and heavy use of state-run media to control the narrative.
Myo Nyunt, deputy director for Myanmar’s Ministry of Information, told Reuters the case against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had nothing to do with press freedom, and said journalists have “freedom to write and speak”.
CALLSFORACCESS TO JOURNALISTS
The Ministry of Information said last week that the two journalists had “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media”, and released a photo of them in handcuffs.
The authorities have not allowed the journalists any contact with their families, a lawyer or Reuters since their arrest.
The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) called on the authorities to immediately disclose the whereabouts of the pair.
“All detainees must be allowed prompt access to a lawyer and to family members,” said Frederick Rawski, the ICJ’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director, in a statement on Monday.
“Authorities are bound to respect these rights in line with Myanmar law and the State’s international law obligations.”
On Sunday, Suu Kyi spokesman Zaw Htay said the journalists’ legal rights are being respected. “Your reporters are protected by the rule of the law.”
However, two senior figures in Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) on Monday joined the criticism of how the two men were being treated.
Nyan Win, a member of the NLD’s central executive committee and a defence lawyer for Suu Kyi during her years of house arrest, said it was “unfair” that the families were not allowed to contact them or be told where they are being held.
He said the police were being “very secretive” and called for “openness”, but added that the NLD was unable to do anything about the issue as it was not being kept informed.
Although an NLD-led civilian government took office in April last year the police and home ministry, which are driving the case, remain under the military’s control.
Win Htein, another senior figure in the NLD, was also critical of the journalists’ detention. “In my opinion this is a trap,” he said. “They met with two policemen and then they were arrested somewhere else with the documents.”
Police Lieutenant Colonel Myint Htwe, of the Yangon Police Division, had no comment when asked about the criticism of the men’s detention.
(Reporting by Yimou Lee, Shoon Naing and Simon Lewis; Writing by John Chalmers; Edited by Martin Howell)