Two Myanmar journalists working for an international newswire who have not been heard from since they were arrested last week should be immediately released, the EU demanded Tuesday.
The sudden detention of reporters Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, who work for Reuters, has spread fears about diminishing press freedoms in Myanmar, where Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government is under growing global pressure over human rights abuses.
The two men, who have been held incommunicado since December 12, have been charged under a colonial-era Official Secrets Act for allegedly possessing documents relating to security forces in Rakhine State, where the military is accused of atrocities against Rohingya Muslims.
Their families, lawyers and colleagues from the international newswire have not been told where the two are, nor been allowed any contact with them.
“We expect the Myanmar authorities to ensure the full protection of their rights and to release the journalists as quickly as possible,” the EU said in a statement on Tuesday, adding its voice to calls from the United Nations and the United States.
The pair had worked on Reuters’ coverage of the Rohingya crisis in northern Rakhine, where a brutal military-led crackdown has pushed some 655,000 people from the Muslim minority to flee to Bangladesh.
“We are deeply concerned about their detention. We do not know their whereabouts, that is of concern also,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert sad in Washington.
“Today I want to make it clear that we’re calling for their immediate release. … I hope the government of Burma will let us know how they’re doing and let the families know how they’re doing.”
UN rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein told AFP on Monday that the crackdown could possibly amount to “genocide”.
The allegations are highly sensitive in Myanmar, where authorities have denied any abuse but blocked access to the conflict zone.
The military insists its crackdown was a proportionate response to Rohingya militants who attacked police posts in August, killing around a dozen officers.
The journalists were arrested after accepting a dinner invitation from police officers on the outskirts of Yangon.
Two policemen, who had returned from duty in northern Rakhine, have also been arrested.
All face maximum sentences of 14 years in prison.
Myanmar’s government has not responded to requests for comment.
Reuters said Tuesday it had not been able to contact its employees since they disappeared.
“We and their families continue to be denied access to them or to the most basic information about their well-being and whereabouts,” said Stephen J. Adler, Reuters editor-in-chief, adding that the pair were “innocent of any wrongdoing”.
Sean Bain, a legal adviser with the International Commission of Jurists, said their situation “appears to constitute arbitrary detention”.
At least 11 journalists have been arrested in Myanmar this year, despite hopes Suu Kyi’s civilian government would usher in a new era of freedom in the former junta-run nation.
“The latest arrests have further terrified many journalists in the country,” said Swe Win, a prominent Myanmar reporter who was detained earlier this year and is fighting his own online defamation case.
“As a result, drastic self censorship has now become the norm when it comes to issues involving security forces.”