Two Reuters journalists jailed in Myanmar have been formally charged with violating the country's Official Secrets Act.
Prosecutors brought the charges against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo during a brief court appearance Wednesday in Yangon. The pair were arrested December 12 after they were allegedly given classified documents by two policemen over dinner.
The reporters' lawyer says the judge refused his request to have his clients released on bail, but promised to make a decision at the next hearing, scheduled for January 23.
The pair had brief, emotional reunions with their family members after the hearing before they were taken back to prison.
Outside the courtroom, dozens of journalists dressed in black rallied in support of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, some carrying signs proclaiming "Journalism is not a crime."
Both men face up to 14 years in prison if convicted under the Official Secrets Act, which dates back nearly a century ago, when Myanmar was under British colonial rule.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo covered the unrest in Myanmar's northwestern Rakhine state, where some 655,000 Rohingya Muslims have been forced to flee into neighboring Bangladesh to escape a scorched earth campaign against them by military forces. Myanmar has been accused of blocking journalists from traveling independently to Rakhine to look first-hand at the crackdown, and to verify refugees' claims of murder, mass rape and burning of villages by security forces.
"It seems to be an effort to disappear the source of the leaks — or at least the people who have taken care of these documents provided by villagers in Rakhine state that would indicate military assaults on Rohingya," Francis Wade, a London-based freelance journalist and author of Myanmar's Enemy Within, told VOA.
"The government and the military feel that their position is being challenged by media reporting on the subject," he added.
The U.S. embassy in Myanmar said it was "disappointed" by Wednesday's decision and called for the "immediate release" of the journalists — calls that were echoed by the U.S. State department.
We echo @USEmbassyBurma’s disappointment by the decision to pursue charges against @Reuters journalists in #Burma and call for the journalists’ immediate release. For #democracy to succeed and flourish, journalists must be able to do their jobs. https://t.co/TiyXBE9hA3— Morgan Ortagus (@statedeptspox) January 10, 2018
Stephen Adler, Reuters' president and editor-in-chief, issued a statement calling the pair's arrest "a wholly unwarranted, blatant attack on press freedom."
The arrests have created an outcry throughout the international community. The United Nations, the United States, Britain, Sweden and Bangladesh are among those who have called for the release of the two journalists.
James Gomez, Amnesty International's director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said Tuesday the charges against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are "clearly an attempt by the authorities to silence investigations into military violations and crimes against Rohingya in Rakhine State, and to scare other journalists away from doing the same."
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton issued a tweet Monday calling for the journalists' release.
A free press is critical to a free society—the detention of journalists anywhere is unacceptable. The Reuters journalists being held in Myanmar should be released immediately.— Bill Clinton (@BillClinton) January 9, 2018
VOA's Victor Beattie contributed to this report.