Detained Myanmar reporters appear in court

An exhausted Rohingya refugee woman touches the shore after crossing the Bangladesh Myanmar border by boat through the Bay of Bengal in Shah Porir Dwip Bangladesh September 11. REUTERS  Danish Siddiqui

Pressure from prominent individuals in the global community and rights groups is mounting on the Myanmar government to release two Reuters journalists detained in December on charges of violating the country's colonial-era Official Secrets Act, with former U.S. President Bill Clinton now calling for their immediate release.

Section 3 covers entering prohibited places, taking images or handling secret official documents that "might be or is meant to be, directly or indirectly, useful to an enemy".

"Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo must be immediately and unconditionally released", said James Gomez, the organization's director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, in a statement.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were allegedly working on a story related to the recent eruption of violence in the northern Rakhine State where hundreds of people were killed in clashes with government forces and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). The pair face up to 14 years' imprisonment under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act.

The Official Secrets Act is a British law dating back to 1923, according to the International Center for Not for Profit Law (ICNL).

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"We view this as a wholly unwarranted, blatant attack on press freedom".

"We don't know yet where they are even though they were included on the witnesses' list", said Than Zaw Aung. The reporters had been working on stories about a military crackdown on the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rahkine State that has caused nearly 650,000 people to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.

Also on Monday, a dozen reporters based in Myanmar's capital Naypyidaw submitted a request to the Myanmar's Home Affairs Ministry for more information about the case, arguing that it could have implications for the ability of journalists to do their jobs, Reuters reported.

Government spokesman Zaw Htay declined to comment on the charges but said the two had their rights under an independent judicial system. They are now being held at Yangon's Insein prison, according Reuters.

"We call on the government of Myanmar to drop the legal charges against and immediately release Wa Lone and Moe Aung, and to allow journalists to do their jobs without fear of similar repercussions".

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Observers from the United Nations and several embassies, including those of the Netherlands, Australia and Britain, were also present at the court as police cordoned off the area.

Kyaw Soe Oo is an ethnic Rakhine Buddhist who grew up in the state capital, Sittwe. Others held banners calling for their immediate release.

Authorities have blocked most media access to the north of Rakhine State, where Rohingya militant attacks on the security forces on August 25 sparked the military crackdown.

Japan wants to raise the matter of the two reporters with the Myanmar government at appropriate opportunities, including a visit by Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono this week, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said in Tokyo.

"It is indeed very disappointing that an old draconian law from the colonial era is being used by a democratically elected government to suppress press freedom", read a statement from the mission dated Wednesday. In 2014, he joined the English-language Myanmar Times, covering the 2015 election that swept Nobel peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to power.

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Wa Lone joined Reuters in 2016 and made his mark with reports on sensitive subjects. The government has denied that their arrests represent an attack on press freedom.

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