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Court to prosecute Reuters journalists in controversial ‘official secrets’ case

Reuters journalists Wa Lone, left, and Kyaw Soe Oo pose for a picture at the Reuters office in Yangon on 11 December 2017. (Photo: Reuters)

A Yangon court will proceed with prosecuting two Reuters journalists accused of violating Burma’s Official Secrets Act, a ruling that is likely to heighten the concerns of press freedom advocates who see the case as a seminal indicator of their cause’s progress in a country long-known for its censorship and antagonistic stance toward the Fourth Estate.

The accused men, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were detained by Burmese authorities on Dec. 12. They face up to 14 years in prison if found guilty under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, and pleaded not guilty following the ruling of Ye Lwin, the presiding magistrate, on Monday.

The drawn-out trial has been criticised by press freedom advocates both in Burma and abroad as Reuters has insisted that the two men were arrested simply for doing their jobs.

They were detained in December as they were reporting on a massacre of Rohingya Muslims in the village of Inn Din, Rakhine State, earlier that year, in which Burmese state security forces were implicated. Reuters subsequently published a lengthy report on the massacre, and seven soldiers were sentenced to 10 years in prison for their role in the killings, according to the military.

“At this critical juncture, we hope that the court will decline to charge Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo and order their prompt release,” Stephen J. Adler, Reuters’ president and editor-in-chief, said in a statement released last week, prior to Monday’s ruling to proceed with prosecuting them.

Pre-trial hearings have included testimony from a rogue witness for the prosecution who said the Reuters duo were entrapped, and claims that there was nothing “secret” about the documents entered into evidence on the prosecution’s behalf. Perceptions that a miscarriage of justice was at hand were prevalent even prior to Monday’s decision, which will likely only cement those concerns.

“We are deeply disappointed that the court declined to end this protracted and baseless proceeding against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo,” Adler said following the ruling.

“These Reuters journalists were doing their jobs in an independent and impartial way, and there are no facts or evidence to suggest that they’ve done anything wrong or broken any law. They should be released and reunited with their families, friends, and colleagues. Today’s decision casts serious doubt on Myanmar’s commitment to press freedom and the rule of law.”

The reporters’ next hearing has been set for July 16.

This story is developing and was last updated at 11:23 a.m.