Exclusive: Pope urges press freedom, cites case of jailed Reuters reporters

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis has appealed for greater press freedom around the world, citing the case of two Reuters journalists jailed in Myanmar on accusations of possessing secret documents.

Pope Francis waves as he arrives to lead the Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican, June 20, 2018. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

The pope visited Myanmar last November and later, in neighboring Bangladesh, had an emotional meeting with Rohingya refugees who had fled there from Rakhine state.

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“The right to information is a right that must always be protected, and not only with regard to the Rohingya,” Pope Francis told Reuters in an interview, when asked about the reporters.

“States that have something they don’t want to be seen, always stop the media and freedom of the press and we must fight for freedom of the press. We must fight.”

Reporters Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, and Wa Lone, 32, have been held since December in what has become a landmark press freedom case, charged under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act. The alleged offences carry a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.

At the time of their arrest, the pair had been working on an investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys in a village in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

Myanmar government spokesman Zay Htay, asked to comment on the pope’s remarks, said on Wednesday that the judiciary was independent, as in other democratic countries.

“Currently, Reuters’ case is a case which is still ongoing at the court. They will be released, if they are innocent. They will be punished if they committed a crime,” he said.

“The government cannot interfere in the court proceedings.”

Pope Francis said the situation surrounding the detention of the two Reuters reporters should be clarified.

“I would like that the reason why they are in prison be clarified. If they have committed a crime or not. But it is important that the situation be clarified,” he said.

Without naming any countries, he decried attacks on press freedom by “so-called democratic” governments, saying bad decisions were sometimes made with “white gloves”.

“In some places, dictatorial governments under the guise of democracy continue to do these things,” he said.

“But right now the press can be very easily manipulated, very easily,” he added. “In some countries maybe things are going well, but there are many ways to silence the media.”

Additional reporting by Antoni Slodkowski in Yangon, Editing by Mark Bendeich and Timothy Heritage