Reuters journalists Wa Lone (L) and Kyaw Soe Oo, who are based in Myanmar, pose for a picture at the Reuters office in Yangon, Myanmar December 11, 2017. REUTERS/Antoni Slodkowski
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Friday that the United States was demanding “the immediate release” of two Reuters reporters arrested in Myanmar “or information as to the circumstances around their disappearance.”
The United States joined mounting demands for the reporters to be freed. The United Nations, United Kingdom, Sweden and Bangladesh, among others, have denounced the arrests, reports Reuters.
The journalists, Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, went missing on Tuesday after being invited to meet police officials over dinner on the northern outskirts of the city of Yangon. They had worked on stories about a military crackdown in Rakhine state, which has triggered the flight of more than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims to Bangladesh since late August.
As of Friday, Reuters had not been formally contacted by officials about the detention of the reporters. The Ministry of Information has said that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media,” and released a photo of the pair in handcuffs.
Reuters President and Editor-in-Chief Stephen J. Adler has called for the immediate release of the journalists, saying in a statement on Wednesday that the global news organization was “outraged by this blatant attack on press freedom.”
A court official in the northern district of Yangon where they were detained said that no paperwork had been filed relating to either journalist. The official said that usually cases are lodged 20-30 days after an arrest as suspects can be held in custody for up to 28 days without being charged.
On Wednesday, Myanmar’s Ministry of Information said the reporters and two policemen faced charges under the British colonial-era Official Secrets Act, though officials have since disclosed that they have not been charged. The 1923 law carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years.
Last month, the United States called the Myanmar military operation against the Rohingya population “ethnic cleansing” and threatened targeted sanctions against those responsible for what it called “horrendous atrocities.”
Tillerson said at the United Nations on Friday that the United States had identified one individual as a sanctions target and was examining others over the campaign in Myanmar against minority Rohingya Muslims.
Myanmar’s 2-year-old government, led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has faced heavy international criticism for its response to the Rohingya crisis, though it has no control over the generals with whom it shares power.
Rights monitors have accused Myanmar’s military of atrocities, including killings, mass rape and arson, against the stateless Rohingya during so-called clearance operations after Rohingya militants’ Aug. 25 attacks on 30 police posts and an army base.
Amnesty International has called for a comprehensive arms embargo against Myanmar as well as targeted financial sanctions against senior Myanmar military officials.
In calling for release of the Reuters reporters on Friday, Tillerson said, “A free press is vital to Myanmar’s transition and becoming a viable democracy, and we want Myanmar’s democracy to succeed.”