YANGON: A court in Myanmar on Monday charged two jailed Reuters journalists with obtaining secret state documents, moving the landmark press freedom case into its trial stage after six months of preliminary hearings.
Yangon district judge Ye Lwin charged reporters Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, with breaching the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.
Both journalists pleaded “not guilty” to the charges, telling the judge they had “followed journalistic ethics”.
Speaking to reporters after the ruling, Wa Lone said he and Kyaw Soe Oo had committed no crime and would testify to their innocence in court.
“Although we are charged, we are not guilty,” he said, in handcuffs, as officials ushered him into a police truck. “We will not retreat, give up or be shaken by this.”
Chief prosecutor Kyaw Min Aung left the courthouse before reporters were able to ask him questions.
The case has attracted global attention. Some Western diplomats and rights groups say it is a test of progress toward full democracy under the administration of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in a country where the military still wields considerable influence.
The United States embassy in Yangon said it was “deeply disappointed” by the court’s decision.
“The Myanmar authorities should allow the journalists to return to their jobs and families,” it said in a post on Facebook. “Today’s decision is a setback for press freedom and the rule of law in Myanmar.”
Reuters President and Editor-in-Chief Stephen J. Adler called the case against the reporters “baseless”.
“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,” he said in a statement.
Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay did not answer calls seeking comment after the court ruling on Monday. He has declined to comment throughout the proceedings, saying Myanmar’s courts are independent and the case would be conducted according to the law.
EU calls on Myanmar to release Reuters reporters: The European Union on Monday called on Myanmar to drop charges against two Reuters reporters after a court charged them with obtaining secret state documents.
Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, have been detained in Myanmar since December 2017. At the time of their arrest, they had been working on an investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys in a village in Rakhine state.
“The European Union expects the charges against the two journalists prosecuted for merely exercising their rights to freedom of expression and carrying out their jobs to be dropped and for them to be released immediately so they can be reunited with their families and resume their vital work,” a spokeswoman for the European Union’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement.