Judge delays bail decision on detained Myanmar journalists

Myanmar police officers escort detained Reuters journalist Wa Lone, center, from a court after a hearing in Yangon, Myanmar, Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018. Two detained Reuters journalists appeared in court after being officially charged with violating Myanmar's Official Secrets Act. (AP Photo/Lamin Tun)

A Myanmar judge has postponed a decision on bail until early February for two Reuters journalists detained for allegedly violating a British colonial-era secrecy law that a former military junta once used to muzzle freedom of speech

YANGON, Myanmar — A Myanmar judge on Tuesday postponed a decision on bail until early February for two Reuters journalists detained on charges of violating a British colonial-era secrecy law that a former military junta once used to muzzle freedom of speech.

Lawyers spent a large part of the hearing at a court complex on the outskirts of Yangon questioning a police chief who oversaw the Dec. 12 arrests of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. Authorities said the reporters received "important secret papers" from two policemen who had worked in Rakhine state, where security forces are blamed for mass killings, rapes and arson that have forced nearly 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee into Bangladesh.

Defense attorney Than Zaw Aung at one point asked the chief, Yu Naing, whether the public has a right to know what's going on in Rakhine state. The chief would only answer that journalists must abide by local media laws.

The journalists, who are both Myanmar citizens, face up to 14 years in prison if convicted.

The case has brought international condemnation of the civilian government of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi for continuing to use colonial era laws against critics of Myanmar's crackdown against the Rohingya, which the United Nations has called "textbook ethnic cleansing."

Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is in Myanmar and has said he'll press for the journalists' release. Richardson and other members of an advisory panel met Monday with Suu Kyi about the Rohingya crisis, but it wasn't clear if anything came of the meeting.

Tuesday's hearing was interrupted occasionally by power outages, during which the two reporters took the chance to huddle with their loved ones. Kyaw Soe Oo put his cuffed hands around his young daughter to hug her and used a tissue to wipe his wife's tears. Wa Lone's wife, sitting behind him, put small pieces of food in his mouth during the hearing.

Khin Maung Zaw, another defense lawyer, said the prosecution will present 25 witnesses over the next three to four months, at which point the court will decide on whether to make an official charge. The judge said he'd rule on bail at a Feb. 1 hearing.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had been reporting on rights abuses against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state, where restrictions have made it nearly impossible for journalists to independently cover the region.

Local media say the journalists' arrests were an attack on media freedom. Under the current government, at least 32 journalists have been charged, mostly under colonial-era laws, according to the local group We Support Journalists.

"The arrests of journalists are more often these days even though we have been demanding ... free press," said Thar Lun Zaung Htet, a member of a protection committee for Myanmar journalists.

The United Nations and the U.S. government have said the arrests show that press freedom is deteriorating in Myanmar.

"It's clear that by targeting a high-profile news organization like Reuters, the government is sending a signal to all journalists, local and foreign, that it's no longer safe to report on sensitive issues in Myanmar," said Shawn Crispin, the Southeast Asia representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

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