(Reuters) - The Myanmar government sought on Wednesday to charge two arrested Reuters journalists under its Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum sentence of 14 years, according to their lawyer.
Many nations, including the United States, Canada and several European countries, as well as top United Nations and EU officials have demanded the release of the reporters - Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27.
They were arrested on Dec. 12 after they had been invited to meet police officers over dinner. Family members have said the two told them they were arrested almost immediately after being handed some documents by the officers they had gone to meet.
The two had worked on Reuters coverage of a crisis in the western state of Rakhine, where - according to U.N. estimates - about 655,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled from a fierce military crackdown on militants.
Myanmar’s Ministry of Information has said the reporters “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media”.
Government spokesman Zaw Htay declined to comment on the charges but said the two had their rights under an independent judicial system.
“The judge will be decide whether they are guilty or not according to the law,” he told Reuters.
Reuters President and Editor-In-Chief Stephen J. Adler said he was extremely disappointed that the authorities were seeking to prosecute the pair.
“We view this as a wholly unwarranted, blatant attack on press freedom,” he said in a statement on Wednesday. “Our colleagues should be allowed to return to their jobs reporting on events in Myanmar. We believe time is of the essence and we continue to call for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s prompt release.”
Here are the latest comments on their detention from governments, politicians, human rights groups, journalists and press freedom advocates around the world:
— British Foreign Office minister Mark Field said he was deeply troubled about the charges the two face.
“We call for their release. Journalists must be able to pursue their work without fear or threat. This is fundamental for any open society,” he said on Twitter on Thursday.
— The United States said it was “deeply disappointed” by Myanmar’s decision to pursue charges under the Official Secrets Act against the two reporters.
“The media freedom that is so critical to rule of law and a strong democracy requires that journalists be able to do their jobs,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement on Wednesday. “We reiterate our call for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s immediate and unconditional release.”
— “Imprisonment of Reuters reporters for investigating Rohingya atrocities is a miscarriage of justice. Press freedom is essential for democracy,” U.S. Senator Edward Markey said in a Twitter post on Wednesday.
— France expressed its concern after the court hearing on Wednesday.
“We call for the respect of their fundamental rights, their immediate release by the Burmese authorities and the free access of the media to (Rakhine State),” the French foreign ministry said in a statement.
— The spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general said on Wednesday the U.N. team in Myanmar was following the case very closely.
“The secretary-general has repeated and will continue to repeat his concern at the erosion of press freedom in Myanmar and calling on the international community to do everything to secure the journalists’ release and freedom of the press,” said spokesman Stephane Dujarric.
— Representatives of the European Union delegation in Myanmar also attended the court hearing and the EU said it continued to expect Myanmar authorities to ensure the full protection of the journalists’ rights.
“The EU considers this case an important test for Myanmar’s commitment to press freedom, an independent judiciary and the development of democratic institutions. A free press that can work without intimidation and fear of undue arrest and prosecution is a fundamental element of any democratic society,” the EU delegation in Myanmar said.
— Denmark’s embassy in Myanmar called for the immediate release of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.
“It is indeed very disappointing that an old draconian law from the colonial era is being used by a democratically elected government to suppress press freedom,” it said in a statement on Wednesday.
— Japan said it was concerned about the issue and that it could be raised when Foreign Minister Taro Kono visits Myanmar this week.
“The Japanese government has conveyed its concern about this matter to the government of Myanmar and going forward, wants to discuss and make appeals at appropriate opportunities, including Foreign Minister Kono’s visit to Myanmar,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said on Wednesday.
— Advocacy group Fortify Rights said the reporters were arrested for doing their jobs and should be released immediately.
“It’s not too late for the government to unconditionally drop the charges and let them go home to their families,” said the group’s chief executive, Matthew Smith.
— Amnesty International demanded the immediate release of the two journalists, saying they had been arbitrarily detained.
“They have done absolutely nothing but carry out their legitimate work as journalists,” said James Gomez, Amnesty International’s Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, in a statement on Wednesday.
“This is clearly an attempt by the authorities to silence investigations into military violations and crimes against Rohingya in Rakhine State, and to scare other journalists away from doing the same.”
— Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in an email to Reuters on Wednesday that Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government should use its parliamentary majority to reform the “antiquated” colonial-era Official Secrets Act.
— Former U.S. President Bill Clinton called on Monday for the immediate release of the two journalists. “A free press is critical to a free society - the detention of journalists anywhere is unacceptable,” Clinton said in a Twitter post.
— The Committee to Protect Journalists has said Myanmar should cease all legal proceedings against the two Reuters journalists and release them from jail.
“The proceedings against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are a transparent attempt to intimidate the media and to prevent coverage of the unfolding tragedy of the Rohingya people in Myanmar’s Rakhine state,” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia programme coordinator, in a statement on Monday.
Compiled by Robert Birsel and Raju Gopalakrishnan