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UN Chief: Reporter Arrests Show "Erosion" of Press Freedom in Myanmar


In this image released by the Myanmar Ministry of Information and broadcast by Myanmar's MRTV, on Dec. 13, 2017, Reuters reporters Wa Lone, left, and Kyaw Soe Oo stand handcuffed in Myanmar.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Thursday that the arrest of two Reuters journalists in Myanmar is a signal that press freedom is shrinking in the country.

Guterres also expressed his concern over human rights violations in Rakhine state, saying the journalists were "probably" arrested "because they were reporting on what they have seen in relation to what he called a massive human tragedy.

FILE - Rohingya Muslim children, who crossed over from Myanmar into Bangladesh, are squashed together as they wait to receive food handouts distributed to children and women by a Turkish aid agency at Thaingkhali refugee camp, Bangladesh, Oct. 21, 2017.
FILE - Rohingya Muslim children, who crossed over from Myanmar into Bangladesh, are squashed together as they wait to receive food handouts distributed to children and women by a Turkish aid agency at Thaingkhali refugee camp, Bangladesh, Oct. 21, 2017.

Journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested late Tuesday in the main city of Yangon and charged with violating the Official Secrets Act. The journalists allegedly planned "to send important security documents regarding security forces in Rakhine state to foreign agencies abroad," according to the government's Myanmar Press Council.

Wa Lone's wife Ma Pan Ei told VOA Burmese that the family has received no information about her husband's condition.

The Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists Joel Simon told VOA Burmese that his organization has called on authorities to release the reporters unconditionally and immediately, adding that the arrests come amid a widening crackdown which is having a grave impact on the ability of journalists to cover a story of vital global importance.

FILE - Rohingya refugees jostle as they line up for a blanket distribution under heavy rainfall at the Balukhali camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, Dec. 11, 2017.
FILE - Rohingya refugees jostle as they line up for a blanket distribution under heavy rainfall at the Balukhali camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, Dec. 11, 2017.

​The northern part of the Rakhine state is the focal point of Myanmar's military campaign that has pushed more than 625,000 minority Rohingya Muslims into neighboring Bangladesh. The operation that began in August in response to attacks on police outposts has been denounced by the United Nations as "ethnic cleansing."

The military and the civilian government have prohibited most journalists and international observers from traveling independently to the area.

Human Rights Watch has condemned the arrests of the two Reuters reporters and echoed calls for their release.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said that Washington is watching the situation closely.

According to the driver who took the two journalists to a suburb of Yangon where they were invited to a dinner with local policemen, the men went to a nearby restaurant with two officers and did not come back.

Wa Lone joined Reuters in 2016 and has covered the Rohingya refugee crisis and a variety of other stories. Kyaw Soe Oo joined the media outlet in September.

Violations of the Officials Secrets Act, which became law during the country's colonial era of the 1920's, is punishable by up to 14 years in prison.

VOA Burmese service contributed to this report.

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