Myanmar President U Htin Kyaw has asked his government to proceed with its case against two Reuters journalists, who were arrested on December 12 under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act of 1923. The reporters were arrested for allegedly collecting classified documents from their sources in the police, The Myanmar Times reported on Monday. The journalists – Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo – are facing a maximum prison term of 14 years.
“The Ministry of Home Affairs sought permission from the President’s Office for the charge,” U Zaw Htay, the director general at the state counsellor’s office, told the newspaper. “With the approval of the President Office, the charges were filed.” Htay said he did not know where the reporters were being held and also refused to comment on the documents that the reporters allegedly had in their possession.
The two reporters were arrested after they were invited to meet police officers for dinner in the north of Yangon. The Ministry of Information said they had “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media”, Reuters reported.
The law under which the journalists have been booked dates back to 1923, when Myanmar, then known as Burma, was a province of British India. The British government used it to quell dissent as they feared rival powers would seek to exploit anti-colonial unrest. British military officers sought the law as concerns grew about an “increase in Bolshevik activity”, along with geopolitical threats such as “the possibility of racial war between Japan and the USA affecting India”, Reuters reported, quoting from a book on the history of the law. It was published by the United Service Institution of India think-tank in 2009.
Sam Zarifi, the Secretary General of the International Commission of Jurists, said that the definition of an official secret in the act was broad. “Just about anyone in possession of unpublished government documents could find themselves facing prosecution and the harsh penalties a conviction may carry,” he added.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on December 15 condemned the government’s decision to arrest the journalists, and urged the international community to do all it can to secure their release.