A court in Myanmar has charged two jailed Reuters news agency journalists with obtaining secret state documents, moving the landmark press freedom case into its trial stage after six months of preliminary hearings.
Yangon district judge Ye Lwin on Monday charged reporters Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, with breaching the colonial-era Official Secret Act, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.
The reporters pleaded not guilty.
The two journalists were detained in December for possessing material relating to security operations in conflict-hit Rakhine state.
Myanmar has faced global condemnation and accusations of extrajudicial killings, ethnic cleansing and genocide as some 700,000 Rohingya have fled Rakhine state in Myanmar to Bangladesh following a military crackdown “on insurgents”.
Stephen Adler, Reuters’ president and editor-in chief, said in a statement: “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.
“They should be released and reunited with their families, friends, and colleagues. Today’s decision casts serious doubt on Myanmar’s commitment to press freedom and the rule of law,” the statement read.
The European Union on Monday echoed Adler’s call to drop the charges.
“The European Union expects the charges against the two journalists prosecuted for merely exercising their rights to freedom of expression and carrying out their jobs to be dropped and for them to be released immediately so they can be reunited with their families and resume their vital work,” a spokeswoman for the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement.
The two reporters have been held in Yangon’s Insein prison since their arrest while facing hearings to determine whether the case will go to trial, with witnesses giving testimony.
In April, their lawyers asked to dismiss the case, citing in part troubling discrepancies in witness statements, but the motion was swiftly rejected in a Yangon courtroom packed with supporters, family and media.
The pair had been investigating the massacre of 10 Rohingya men on September 2 in the Rakhine village of Inn Din, which was carried out by security forces and local villagers.
The military admitted that the atrocity took place and Reuters later published the story while the reporters were in prison.