Myanmar authorities charge Reuters journalists with obtaining state secrets

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Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were charged under the Official Secrets Act after a meeting with police in which they had offered information on the humanitarian situation in Rakhine state.

The journalists were arrested on December 12 and detained without access to family or lawyers for two weeks. The police officers had worked in Rakhine state, where security forces are blamed for rights abuses against Rohingya Muslims that have sparked the exodus of some 650,000 people to Bangladesh. The trial against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo is scheduled to begin on January 23.

The Official Secrets Act dates back to 1923, when Myanmar, then known as Burma, was a province of British India.

Section 3 covers entering prohibited places, taking images or handling secret official documents that "might be or is meant to be, directly or indirectly, useful to an enemy".

The country's ministry of information said the journalists were arrested "for possessing important and secret government documents related to Rakhine state and security forces", claiming they "illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media". Through state media, the NLD-controlled information ministry had laid the groundwork for reporters in the pay of overseas news agencies to be viewed as the equivalent of spies.

Than Zaw Aung said that the plaintiff, Yu Naing, objected when the lawyer applied for bail on behalf of the accused.

Prosecutors in said Wednesday that the two men had violated the nation's Official Secrets Act. When they went outside, seven police surrounded them and arrested them.

About 30 journalists were outside the court, most dressed in black as a sign of protest against the arrest of the pair.

Wa Lone's wife gave him a few small pieces of cake that she had brought.

The two are due to appear in court tomorrow.

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Distraught relatives of Kyaw Soe Oo wailed and reached out to grasp him as the two journalists were driven away from a throng of reporters after the hearing. "The Reuters journalists being held in Myanmar should be released immediately", Clinton said in a Twitter post. Our colleagues should be allowed to return to their jobs reporting on events in Myanmar.

"What with the lack of transparency, the failure to respect proper legal procedure and the fabrication of evidence, everything suggests that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are being used by the authorities as scapegoats in order to deter overly curious reporters". Government spokesman U Zaw Htay declined to comment when asked if the two officers had been or would also be charged.

"The judge will be decide whether they are guilty or not according to the law", he told Reuters.

Before Wednesday's hearing, former US President Bill Clinton joined the chorus calling for the pair's release.

"In the US, it's under attack in a frighteningly casual way".

"For democracy to succeed and flourish, journalists must be able to do their jobs". The independent Myanmar Press Council only offered to "mediate" and did not join calls for their release. Authorities have largely banned media from the conflict zone.

"The secretary-general has repeated and will continue to repeat his concern at the erosion of press freedom in Myanmar and calling on the worldwide community to do everything to secure the journalists' release and freedom of the press", said United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

The European Union's envoy to Myanmar, Kristian Schmidt, said in a letter to the nation's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, that the arrest of the journalists "amounts to a serious intimidation against journalists in general,".

- Japan said it was concerned about the issue and that it could be raised when Foreign Minister Taro Kono visits Myanmar this week.

The case has brought widespread condemnation, both inside and outside the country, and comes at a time that journalists inside Myanmar are feeling increasingly under threat, amid a series of high profile arrests of reporters in the past year, as Myanmar's government and military tackles with global criticism for its handling of the crisis in Rakhine State.

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