(Reuters) - Several countries, the United Nations and journalist groups are demanding the release of Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo from detention in Myanmar.
The reporters were arrested on Dec. 12 after being invited to meet police officials on the outskirts of Yangon. They had worked on stories about a military crackdown in Rakhine state, scene of more than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh since late August.
Myanmar’s Ministry of Information has said the reporters “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media,” and released a photo of them in handcuffs.
It said the reporters and two policemen faced charges under the British colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years, though officials said they have not been charged. Their exact whereabouts are not known.
Reuters’ driver Myothant Tun dropped them off at a police compound and the two reporters and two police officers headed to a nearby restaurant. The journalists did not return to the car.
Reuters President and Editor-in-Chief Stephen J. Adler said the arrests were a “blatant attack on press freedom” and called for the immediate release of the journalists.
Here are reactions to their detention from politicians and press freedom advocates around the world:
- U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the United States was “demanding their immediate release or information as to the circumstances around their disappearance.”
- British Minister for Asia and the Pacific Mark Field said, “I absolutely strongly disapprove of the idea of journalists, going about their everyday business, being arrested. We will make it clear in the strongest possible terms that we feel that they need to be released at the earliest possible opportunity.”
- Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom called the arrests a “threat to a democratic and peaceful development of Myanmar and that region.” She said, “We do not accept that journalists are attacked or simply kidnapped or that they disappear ... To be able to send journalists to this particular area is of crucial importance.”
- U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said countries should do everything possible to secure the journalists’ release and freedom of the press in Myanmar. Guterres said, “It is clearly a concern in relation to the erosion of press freedom in the country.” He added: “And probably the reason why these journalists were arrested is because they were reporting on what they have seen in relation to this massive human tragedy.”
- Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland, the former managing director and editor, consumer news, at Thomson Reuters, tweeted that she was “deeply concerned” by the reports about the arrests. Global Affairs Canada, the Canadian government department that manages its foreign and trade relations, issued a separate statement on Saturday calling for the reporters’ release and said that “no person should ever face intimidation in the exercise of their profession.”
- President of the European Parliament Antonio Tajani called on Myanmar to protect media freedoms and release the two reporters.
- Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury, information adviser to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, said, “We strongly denounce arrests of Reuters journalists and feel that those reporters be free immediately so that they can depict the truth to the world by their reporting.”
- Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s spokesman Motosada Matano said his government was closely watching the situation, and that Japan has been conducting a dialogue with the Myanmar government on human rights in Myanmar in general.
- Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said its embassy in Myanmar was registering Canberra’s concern at the arrest of the two journalists. “A free and functioning media is an essential part of a modern democracy,” the department said in an e-mail to Reuters on Monday.
- The Committee to Protect Journalists said, “We call on local authorities to immediately, unconditionally release Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. These arrests come amid a widening crackdown which is having a grave impact on the ability of journalists to cover a story of vital global importance.”
- The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said there was no justification for the arrests. Daniel Bastard, the head of the group’s Asia-Pacific desk, said the charges being considered were “completely spurious”.
- Advocacy group Fortify Rights demanded the Myanmar government immediately and unconditionally release the two Reuters journalists. “The environment for media right now is as hostile as it’s been for years, and if adequate pressure doesn’t mount on the civilian and military leadership, we can expect it to worsen,” Matthew Smith, chief executive officer of Fortify Rights, said in a statement on Thursday.
- Myanmar’s Irrawaddy online news site called on Dec. 14 for the journalists’ release in an editorial headlined “The Crackdown on the Media Must Stop.” The newspaper said that “it is an outrage to see the Ministry of Information release a police record photo of reporters handcuffed – as police normally do to criminals – on its website soon after the detention. It is chilling to see that MOI has suddenly brought us back to the olden days of a repressive regime.”
- The Southeast Asian Press Alliance asked for the immediate release of the journalists. “These two journalists are only doing their jobs in trying to fill the void of information on the Rohingya conflict,” said SEAPA executive director Edgardo Legaspi. “With this arrest, the government seems to be sending the message that all military reports should be off limits to journalists.”
- The Protection Committee for Myanmar Journalists, a group of local reporters who have demonstrated against past prosecutions of journalists, decried the “unfair arrests that affect media freedom”. “A reporter must have the right to get information and write news ethically,” said video journalist A Hla Lay Thu Zar - a member of the group’s executive committee.
- The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Myanmar said it was “appalled” by the arrests and “gravely concerned” about the state of press freedom in Myanmar. It called on authorities to ensure the reporters’ safety and allow their families to see them.
- The Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Thailand, The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines, and the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club, have also issued statements of support for the journalists.
(Refiles to add dropped surname of Swedish foreign minister.)
Compiled by Toni Reinhold and Martin Howell; Editing by Grant McCool and Martin Howell