Myanmar must ensure that journalists can operate freely and safely, UN human rights specialists have urged, after two Reuters journalists were detained in what has been described as a widening crackdown in the country.
“We urge the authorities to take steps to reverse their acts of repression and ensure that media can operate freely in Myanmar,” the experts said in a statement.
“We are especially concerned that the arrests signal a desire to limit access to information about the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State.”
The Special Rapporteurs called for the immediate release of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were arrested in Yangon on 12 December while working on stories about the military’s role in the widespread assault on the Rohingya Muslim population in Rakhine State.
The United Nations and Reuters have both rejected reports published in domestic media suggesting that the journalists had given information to the UN.
The Special Rapporteurs said: “We note that the UN has denied any suggestion that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo work for the UN, or have contacted them regarding the situation in Rakhine State. We urge the authorities to free them immediately and drop all allegations against them.”
The call comes after the Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, confirmed she had been denied access to the country for a planned visit in January, and all cooperation had been withdrawn for the duration of her tenure.
The journalists have been charged under the 1923 Official Secrets Act, and face prison terms of up to 14 years if convicted. According to the authorities, the journalists illegally acquired information with the intention of sharing it with foreign media.
“The use of the Official Secrets Act to criminalize journalism in this way puts Myanmar on a dangerous path towards closing the space for media independence and freedom of expression,” the experts said.
“Journalism is not a crime. These detentions are another way for the Government to censor information about the military’s role in Rakhine State and the humanitarian catastrophe taking place.”
The Special Rapporteurs are in contact with the authorities of Myanmar concerning the situation.