Journalists appear in court as Bill Clinton urges their release

Bangkok: It was a trap reminiscent of the darkest days of the Myanmar army's half-century of repressive rule.

On December 12 as world outrage was growing over a pogrom against Rohingya Muslims two young and ambitious Reuters reporters received an invitation journalists dream about.

They were invited for dinner on the outskirts of Yangon with a pair of police officers who had worked in townships in Myanmar's western Rakhine state where Rohingya survivors had pointed to a mass grave as evidence of army-led atrocities.

Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, were handed rolled-up documents and told they could view them once they got home, according to sources familiar with the case.

But as they walked along a road shortly after they were confronted by a group of about eight police, handcuffed and then held incommunicado for two weeks, accused of acquiring "important secret papers."

A few days after the arrests Myanmar's President Htin Kyaw, a close ally and confidant of the country's de facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, authorised police to proceed with charges against them under the country's Official Secrets Act.

The law dating back to the days of British colonial rule carries a prison sentence of 14 years.

The case and those of at least 32 other journalists charged, mostly under draconian colonial-era laws, since Suu Kyi was swept into power at historic elections in 2016 on a wave of democratic euphoria, shows the army has returned to the same treachery it used to intimidate the media under decades of military rule.

"Such arrests and laws were widely used by the military junta to shut us down," said Maung Saungkha, founder of a local group called We Support Journalists.

"But it's sad to see media freedom is even worse under the so-called democratic government."

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were charged with violating the Official Secrets Act when they appeared in court on Wednesday. Their case has sparked international outrage.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said they show how press freedom is deteriorating in Myanmar and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for their release.

On Tuesday, former US President Bill Clinton joined the calls, tweeting that the arrests are unacceptable and saying the journalists should be released immediately.

Reuters President and Editor-in-Chief Stephen Adler said the "arrests and continued incarceration represent an egregious attack on press freedom - preventing them, and deterring other journalists, from reporting independently in Myanmar."

Daniel Bastard from Reporters Without Borders said the allegations against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are not credible.

He said authorities claimed that the two policemen who supposedly attended the dinner were also arrested but the reporters say they are not the ones who gave them the documents, and authorities have failed to explain explained the glaring inconsistency.

The whereabouts of the policemen are unknown. The journalists are being held in the notoriously harsh Insein?????? prison in Yangon.

"What with the lack of transparency, the failure to respect proper legal procedure and the fabrication of evidence, everything suggests that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are being used by the authorities as scapegoats in order to deter curious reporters," Bastard said.

Shawn Crispin, senior south-east Asia representative for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said "we have been gravely disappointed by the lack of progress on legal reforms and the new clampdown on journalists under Suu Kyi's rule."

Suu Kyi has made no public comment on the arrests and her government has reformed none of the country's colonial-era laws that created barriers to a free press.

Myanmar journalists say despite the army's promise in 2011 to allow liberal reforms and press freedom as the country opened to the world, a pervasive network of undercover intelligence agents and their informants has not been dismantled under Suu Kyi's government.

The government also refuses to lift a ban on UN investigators, independent researchers and journalists entering Rakhine, home to 1.1 million Rohingya.

More than 655,000 Rohingya have fled Rakhine for squalid camps in Bangladesh since August to escape what the United Nations has described as textbook ethnic cleansing and "very like crimes against humanity".

The aid group Doctors Without Borders estimates as many as 13,000 Rohingya civilians were killed in the first month of atrocities committed by the Myanmar army and Buddhist mobs.

*Lindsay Murdoch was for a decade on a blacklist of foreign journalists who could not enter Myanmar following his reporting in the country in the 1990s.

This story Journalists appear in court as Bill Clinton urges their release first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.