Myanmar trial set for Reuters journalists

Wa Lone a journalist for the Reuters newswire arrives at a court in Yangon

Two Reuters journalists were formally charged by police in a Myanmar court Wednesday with breaching a colonial-era secrecy law that carries up to 14 years in jail, provoking a barrage of calls for their immediate release.

"If any person for any goal prejudicial to the safety or interest of the State obtains, collects, records or publishes or communicates to any other person any secret official code or password, or any sketch, plan, model, article or note or other document or information which is calculated to be or might be or is meant to be, directly or indirectly, useful to an enemy", they could be punished with time in prison, that particular section of the law states. The pair, Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, were detained on December 12 last. The reporters had met two police officers for dinner on the outskirts of Yangon, the country's largest city, where they were handed documents believed to pertain to military operations against the Muslim Rohingya minority in Rakhine state.

The Official Secrets Act dates back to 1923, when Myanmar, then known as Burma, was a province of British India.

The president of Reuters released a statement describing the arrest as a wholly unwarranted and blatant attack on press freedom. "I never made any mistake; I never did anything wrong", Wa Lone said before leaving the court. The U.N. says almost 655,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled the western state to Bangladesh since the bloody violence erupted last August. The reporters were invited to meet with police officials. The journalists are being held in the notoriously harsh Insein✓ prison in Yangon.

The United States Embassy also weighed in on the situation, calling for the journalists to be released.

Top officials from the United Nations and several countries, including Britain and Canada, have called for the release of the pair.

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The media and NGOs have been barred from entering northern Rakhine where the Myanmar military stands accused of committing atrocities against the Rohingya during the crackdown which the United Nations and US say amounts to ethnic cleansing.

"The Reuters journalists being held in Myanmar should be released immediately", Clinton said in a Twitter post.

Separately, an independent Myanmar media outlet, the Development Media Group, which is based in and focuses on coverage of events in Rakhine State, also called for the release of the pair. Both reporters have said they were not mistreated in custody, the report said.

Phil Robertson of the group Human Rights Watch said that "if Aung San Suu Kyi and her government really cared about democratic reforms and governance, they could use their parliamentary majority to quickly reform this antiquated colonial law and bring it into compliance with global human rights standards".

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.

Reporters Without Borders said the two reporters were being used as "scapegoats" to intimidate journalists, as rights groups condemned their continued detention. The government has denied that their arrests represent an attack on press freedom.

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