Burma/Myanmar — Two Reuters journalists were arrested on December 12, and have recently been charged under the “Official Secrets Act.” The two journalists, Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo, had previously reported on the violence in Rakhine state with the Rohingya people. More often than not, the government tends to keep tight control over their media outlets — for example, a journalist could face up to 15 years in prison if they commit “any act detrimental to the security of the State or prevalence of law and order or community peace and tranquility or national solidarity or national economy or national culture” in regards to their written or broadcast content. However, the court is claiming that this was a matter of national security, and that the journalists were in possession of what is essentially classified material.
Local news outlets and families of the journalists have reported that the two were invited to the police officers’ house, and subsequently handed the documents. Before they could get the chance to read them, they were detained by police. According to the Official Secrets Act, the document doesn’t necessarily even have to be labelled secret or classified like in the United States — people can be imprisoned for possessing information “intended to be, directly or indirectly, useful to an enemy.” The documents in question have not been released.
There have been no reports as to punitive actions toward the police officers that allegedly handed over the material, though they did appear in court. There has not yet been a verdict, and the course are still deliberating whether or not the two will be eligible for bail. They could each face up to 14 years in a Burmese prison under these charges.
The two had worked with Reuters in reporting on the Rohingya crisis that has led 655,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing over the border and into Bangladesh. Many civilians have been killed — in the first month of fighting, Doctors Without Borders reported over 1,200 children under the age of five were killed, most of which in person by Burmese soldiers.
The Official Secrets Act was instated in 1923 under British Colonial Rule. The part of the act that Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo have been charged with reads as follows:
3. (1) If any person for any purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the State—
(c) obtains, collects, records or publishes or communicates to any other person any secret
official code or password, or any sketch, plan, model, article or note or other document or
information which is calculated to be or might be or is intended to be, directly or
indirectly, useful to an enemy.”
What constitutes the “enemy” here, how these documents may have “directly or indirectly” been useful to an enemy, and even the basic nature of the documents found, all still remain to be seen. The U.S., U.K. and Canadian governments have all urged the Burmese government to release the journalists, and have claimed that this was an attempt to stifle freedom of the press, not an effort to keep national security intact.
Featured image courtesy of the Associated Press.