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Court hears arguments on motion to dismiss charges against Reuters duo

Detained Reuters journalist Kyaw Soe Oo greets his family while arrives to a court hearing in Yangon on 4 April 2018. (Photo: Reuters)

As two Reuters reporters appeared in court for their 13th hearing on Wednesday in connection with allegations that they violated Burma’s Official Secrets Act, attorneys for the defence and prosecution argued over whether the charges should be dismissed.

Lawyers for the accused — Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28 — put forward a motion to dismiss the charges at their clients’ previous hearing on 28 March. Judge Ye Lwin today said he would rule on the motion to dismiss at the next hearing in the case, scheduled for 11 April.

Unlike previous hearings, Ye Lwin and the lead prosecutor did not discuss whom the latter intended to call to testify as witnesses at the next hearing, according to defence lawyer Khin Maung Zaw, which he said meant the upcoming court proceedings will solely address the matter of whether or not the trial will continue.

The two journalists were arrested on the outskirts of Yangon on 12 December, shortly after meeting with police officers at a restaurant. At the time of their detention they were allegedly in possession of sensitive government documents, which could see pair imprisoned for up to 14 years under Burma’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act.

The Reuters duo were part of a reporting team working on an investigative exposé that was eventually published, in February, detailing Burmese security forces’ massacre of Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine State village of Inn Din.

In making his clients’ case at Wednesday’s hearing, Khin Maung Zaw told the court that the Reuters journalists did not violate the Officials Secrets Act and that the testimonies of witnesses called by the prosecution over the past several weeks had not offered sufficient evidence to charge the defendants under the law.

He also claimed that the prosecution had failed to establish the purported “secrecy” of the documents in question — reportedly containing information on troop deployments in Rakhine State — which he said had already been published by both state-run and private media outlets.

“We made our best [argument] for the two journalists. I hope for a good decision from the judge,” Khin Maung Zaw told reporters following Wednesday’s hearing.

Speaking before the court in arguing for the trial’s continuation, lead prosecutor Kyaw Min Aung countered that the defendants had been found in possession of secret government documents, and that by obtaining them the journalists posed a threat to state security and the national interest.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have maintained their claims to innocence throughout the trial, vocally pushing back against the notion that their actions were treasonous or otherwise ran afoul of the law.

“We covered the stories as journalists. We followed media ethics and wrote the stories in line with media ethics,” Wa Lone said after Wednesday’s hearing.

With the trial at a crucial juncture next week, Kyaw Soe Oo expressed hope that an end to their lengthy legal ordeal might be in sight.

“I didn’t do anything wrong. That’s why I believe that I will be freed soon,” he said.

Reuters has been at the forefront of reporting on the latest crisis in Rakhine State, where attacks by Rohingya militants on security outposts in the state’s north set off a fierce counter-insurgency operation. As more than 600,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since then, press access in northern Rakhine has been severely restricted amid damaging allegations levelled against Burmese security forces accused by the UN of ethnically cleansing the Rohingya population.

As the accusations have piled up, the military and government have pushed back strongly, with a particular focus on discrediting international media outlets’ coverage of the situation. Reuters has been no less aggressive in defending its detained employees and their work.

“They have been detained … simply for doing their jobs as journalists,” Stephen J. Adler, the president and editor-in-chief of Reuters, said in a statement last month.