WASHINGTON: Former US President Bill Clinton and the European Union’s envoy to Myanmar on Monday called for the immediate release of two Reuters journalists being held in Myanmar.
“A free press is critical to a free society – the detention of journalists anywhere is unacceptable. The Reuters journalists being held in Myanmar should be released immediately,” Clinton said in a Twitter post.
Myanmar has accused Reuters reporters Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, of breaching the country’s Official Secrets Act, a little-used law from colonial rule.
They had worked on coverage of a crisis in the western state of Rakhine, where a military crackdown that followed militant attacks on security forces in August led to an exodus of more than 650,000 Rohingya Muslims to refugee camps in Bangladesh.
They are due to appear in court in the main city of Yangon on Wednesday. It will be their second appearance in court and the prosecutor could request that charges are filed against them.
“This situation amounts to a serious intimidation against journalists in general and from Reuters in particular,” said Kristian Schmidt, representative in Yangon of the EU’s 28 states, said in a letter to the country’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, dated Jan 8.
“Journalists should … be able to work in a free and enabling environment without fear of intimidation or undue arrest or prosecution,” he said. “We, therefore, call on your government to provide the necessary legal protection for these two journalists, to ensure the full respect of their fundamental rights and to release them immediately.”
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were detained after they were invited to meet police for dinner in Yangon. The Ministry of Information has cited the police as saying they were “arrested for possessing important and secret government documents related to Rakhine State and security forces”. It said they had “illegally acquired the information with the intention to share it with foreign media”.
Government officials from nations including the United States, Britain and Canada as well as top UN officials have called for the journalists’ release.
Reuters President and Editor-in-Chief Stephen J Adler said in a statement on Monday: “As they near their hearing date, it remains entirely clear that they are innocent of any wrongdoing.”
Authorities have blocked access to media seeking to cover the military crackdown in the north of Rakhine State. The United Nations has condemned the military campaign there as ethnic cleansing, a charge that Myanmar has rejected.