Two journalists covering Rohingya crisis in Burma arrested for possessing ‘secret papers’

Reuters reporter Ko Wa Lone, left, and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo. (Facebook)
Reuters reporter Ko Wa Lone, left, and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo. (Facebook)

Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who in recent months have covered the military crackdown on the Rohingya Muslim minority in Burma, were recently invited to meet two police officers over dinner in the country’s largest city, Rangoon.

Their driver dropped them off at Battalion 8’s compound around 8 p.m. Tuesday, and the journalists and police officers went to a nearby restaurant, according to Reuters. The driver waited.

But the journalists never returned to the car. They were instead detained at a police station on the outskirts of Rangoon, officially called Yangon. The Reuters Burma Bureau chief, Antoni Slodkowski, received just four words in a text message from Wa Lone:

“I have been arrest.”

Wa Lone’s phone appeared to have been turned off soon after.

“We are outraged by this blatant attack on press freedom,” Reuters president and editor in chief Stephen J. Adler said in a statement. “We call for authorities to release them immediately.”

The Burmese Embassy in Washington could not immediately be reached for comment.

Reuters and the Associated Press reported that Burma’s Ministry of Information posted a photo on Facebook of the two journalists in handcuffs and said they had been in possession of “important secret papers” and information about the military that they obtained from the two police officers who had previously worked in the country’s western Rakhine State — where rapes and killings since August have forced 600,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.

The U.S. Embassy in Burma and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists are among several agencies that denounced the arrests and called for the journalists’ release.

The journalists and the policemen with whom they met will be charged under the country’s 1923 Official Secrets Act — a law carried over from British colonialism — and could serve up to 14 years in prison, according to the Facebook statement, Reuters reported. The post no longer appears on the Ministry of Information’s Facebook page, but BBC journalist Nga Pham tweeted what she said was the image of the journalists.