YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Two detained Reuters journalists appeared in court Tuesday after being officially charged with violating a Myanmar secrecy law and as local media express concern about the backsliding of the country's press freedoms.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested Dec. 12 based on allegations they violated the Official Secrets Act by acquiring "important secret papers" from two policemen. The charge is punishable by up to 14 years in prison.
Their attorney presented bail arguments at the hearing and both sides will be able to question the police chief before the bail decision is made.
"The prosecution will present 25 witnesses and that will take three to four months and the court will decide on the official charge," said Khin Maung Zaw, the defense lawyer.
The two police officers had worked in Rakhine state, where security forces are widely blamed for rights abuses against Rohingya Muslims. A security crackdown has sent more than 680,000 people fleeing to Bangladesh.
In a news conference earlier this month, families of the two reporters said the pair was arrested after two policemen they had not met before handed them some documents at a restaurant.
Local media have said the arrests were an attack on media freedom and have expressed concerns on backsliding of the country's free press. Under the current government, at least 32 journalists have been charged, mostly under colonial-era laws, according to the local group We Support Journalists.
"The arrests of journalists are more often these days even though we have been demanding for free press," said Thar Lun Zaung Htet, a member of protection committee for Myanmar journalists. "Backsliding on Myanmar's media freedom seems to be going in a fast acceleration."
Rights and media groups have criticized Myanmar's civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi for its crackdown on media. Their detentions have caused global condemnation. A number of international organizations including the United Nations and the U.S. have said the arrests showed ho press freedom was deteriorating in Myanmar.
"It's clear that by targeting a high-profile news organization like Reuters, the government is sending a signal to all journalists, local and foreign, that it's no longer safe to report on sensitive issues in Myanmar," said Shawn Crispin, the Southeast Asia representative of Committee to Protect Journalists.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had been reporting on the issues of rights abuses against the Rohingya in Rakhine state, where new restrictions have made it nearly impossible for journalists to independently cover the region.