As It Happens

'Incredibly disturbing': Reuters chief sounds alarm after journalists remain locked up in Myanmar

Burmese officials are seeking charges against journalists Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone under Myanmar's Official Secrets Act. Both were arrested in December while reporting on the crisis among Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar's Rakhine state.
Reuters' journalists Wa Lone, centre front, and Kyaw Soe Oo, centre back, are escorted by police as they leave the court after their first trial in Yangon, Myanmar, Jan. 10, 2018. (Lynn Bo Bo/EPA)

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"We were trying to reveal the truth," Reuters journalist Wa Lone told reporters as he was escorted out of a courtroom on Wednesday.

The Myanmar government is seeking charges against him and reporter Kyaw Soe Oo under the country's Official Secrets Act, a decades-old law prohibiting anti-colonial speech.

The two were reporting on the crisis in Rakhine state where a military campaign targeting Rohingya Muslims had lead to 650,000 people fleeing the area when they were arrested last month.

The reason for their arrest remains unclear, however it has been reported that the journalists were given materials by police officers. They were unaware of the contents of the materials.

Stephen Adler, president and editor-in-chief of Reuters News, told As It Happens host Carol Off that the arrests are damaging to press freedom. Here's part of their conversation:

Mr. Adler, we have seen pictures and video of these two journalists outside the courtroom, saying goodbye to their children and in handcuffs. Can you describe the scene there as you saw it?

Well, I mean, first of all the fact that they were even there in handcuffs is what we are so very concerned about because our two reporters Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone were arrested just while doing reporting like anybody else would.

The scene is one in which you see Burmese journalists very concerned about this, so there's a lot of press attention there. There's just tremendous concern that two reporters going about their business reporting on something that's of worldwide importance suddenly get arrested. 

Kyaw Soe Oo, in handcuffs, talks to supporters as he leaves court Wednesday. (Thein Zaw/Associated Press)

And they have already been in detention for a month. Do you know what conditions they're in? What are they returning to? What have you learned as to how they're being held?

At first they were in an interrogation centre and we had no contact with them at all. And then after their first court appearance, they were sent to a pretty hardcore prison in Yangon, so they're in a prison that includes people who've committed serious, violent crimes.

Has Reuters — and your lawyers representing them — had much access to them, then?

There was no access in the beginning when they were in the interrogation centre. There has been limited access for the lawyers since they've been in the prison. We, as Reuters, have not had access to them except very briefly when they were being transferred into and outside the courtroom.

What are your biggest concerns at Reuters?

There's another hearing coming up on January 23rd and we're still hopeful that they'll be released, but the prosecutors have asked them to be charged under the Official Secrets Act. That's a law that goes back to 1923 when Myanmar was a part of a British India and it's really a law that was trying to stop anti-colonial uprising. So, journalists in 2018 are being charged with a crime that was an effort to protect the colonial power of the British Empire in 1923.

Wa Lone is escorted by police upon his arrival at court Wednesday in Yangon, Myanmar. (Thein Zaw/Associated Press)

For those who have not followed the story — I know it goes back a bit — what were they doing when they were arrested and what are they charged with having done?

We're not publicly stating exactly what they were reporting because we're trying to protect them and we're concerned that that might put them in greater danger. I can say broadly that Reuters has been reporting very closely on the Rohingya Muslims which are a minority group in Myanmar.

[Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone] were arrested in the course of doing their reporting. They had been invited to meet with a couple of policemen right outside the capital of Yangon. They met with the police and shortly thereafter they were arrested and disappeared. We had no contact with them for a couple days; didn't even know what had happened or where they were.

They're not aligned with any party or any side. They're just trying to go out and report what's going on. And to be arrested in the course of doing that and to be charged with such a serious crime is just incredibly disturbing and I think should be disturbing to anyone who cares about press freedom around the world.

Is this going to make it even more difficult to get any independent stories out of Myanmar?

Whenever people are arrested for doing their job, it sends a message to everybody else that it's really dangerous to do this work. I think people already knew it was dangerous, but I think this raises the stakes for journalists quite a lot, particularly invoking the Official Secrets Act. The [Act] is a very, very high level, serious matter with potential prison sentences of 14 years, so we're especially distressed by that.

Myanmar is a democracy. It converted to being a democracy. It has democratic leadership. What we're trying to stress is that being a democracy includes being tolerant of free and independent reporting, even if sometimes you don't like what the results of their reporting are.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Stephen Adler, listen in the audio player above.