U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley on Monday decried the decision of a court in Burma for formally charging two Reuters journalists accused of illegally possessing official information, allowing their case to go to a full trial.
She called the court’s action, rooted in a colonial-era law, “a major setback for press freedom.”
Haley said in a statement, “A free press is fundamental to democracy. Journalists not only keep citizens informed but they hold leaders accountable. They should never be unjustly targeted, threatened, or persecuted for simply doing their jobs. We call on the Burmese government to allow these journalists to return to their families and continue their work.”
The case of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo went through several months of hearings to determine if there was enough evidence to support the charge, which the reporters denied.
The two reporters were charged with violating the Official Secrets Act, a law dating from British colonial times, and if convicted, could get up to 14 years in prison.
They were arrested in December, and have been detained since then because the court denied their request to be released on bail.
They apparently were targeted by the authorities because their work concerned the brutal crackdown by security forces against minority Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Rakhine state.
About 700,000 Rohingya have escaped to neighboring Bangladesh since the crackdown began last August.
The Burmese military’s actions against the Rohingya have come under harsh criticism internationally, including charges that it was carrying out ethnic cleansing.
The two journalists had worked on an investigation of the killing of 10 Rohingya villagers in Inn Din village, for which the government said seven soldiers were sentenced to up 10 years in prison with hard labor.
Their lawyers argued they broke no laws, and simply were doing their jobs.
The reporters contended they were framed by police, a claim that was supported by testimony from a whistleblower in the police department, Moe Yan Naing. After giving his surprise testimony, he was jailed for violating the Police Disciplinary Act, and his family was forced to vacate their police housing unit.
“We did not commit any crimes,” Wa Lone said outside the courtroom.
He said his response to the judge’s decision was: “We won’t ever give up. Today’s court decision does not mean that we are guilty. We still have the right to a defense.”
Reuters urged the authorities to release the two.
“We are deeply disappointed that the court declined to end this protracted and baseless proceeding against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. 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,” Stephen J. Adler, Reuters’ president and editor-in-chief, said in a statement. “Today’s decision casts serious doubt on (Burma’s) commitment to press freedom and the rule of law.”
Human rights groups and freedom of expression organizations also decried Monday’s court decision.
“This is a black day for press freedom in (Burma),” said Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International’s director of crisis response. “The court’s decision to proceed with this farcical, politically motivated case has deeply troubling and far-reaching implications for independent journalism in the country.”
The free expression group ARTICLE 19 said that the court’s decision “perpetuates a grave injustice and casts doubt on the independence of (Burma’s) judiciary.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.