Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo (also known as Moe Aung), both Myanmar reporters for the Reuters news agency, were arrested on December 12, 2017, and held incommunicado for several weeks. The two journalists were charged on January 10, 2018, with violating the Official Secrets Act, a rarely invoked law created during the British colonial period that punishes taking images or obtaining documents that might be or are intended to be “useful to an enemy.” Prosecutors have charged the journalists with obtaining important and secret state documents relating to the crisis in Rakhine State, from which some 680,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled since August 2017. Prior to their arrest, the journalists had been investigating the existence of a mass grave in the village of Inn Din.

If convicted, the journalists face up to 14 years in prison. Both journalists are currently being held at Insein Prison in Yangon, an institution notorious for its use of torture and the calculated mistreatment of its prisoners during the years of military rule. Their trial began on January 23, 2018, and during a court hearing on February 1, 2018, they were denied a request for bail. Their next hearing is scheduled for February 14.

On February 13, 2018, PEN America announced that it would honor Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo with the 2018 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Awardrecognizing their struggle in the face of adversity for the right to freedom of expression. The award will be presented at PEN’s annual gala to be held on May 22. 

CASE History

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested in Yangon on the evening of December 12, 2017, ostensibly for violating the 1923 Official Secrets Act by illegally obtaining information related to a military campaign in Rakhine State by the Myanmar army—which human rights groups and the United Nations claim amounts to ethnic cleansing—with the intention of sharing it with the foreign media.

Their investigative reporting for Reuters on mass atrocity crimes in Rakhine State made Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo targets. In a statement made on January 10, 2018, the Myanmar military admitted that security forces and villagers captured and killed 10 “Bengali terrorists” and buried them in a mass grave in the village of Inn Din in Maungdaw Township, the same grave that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had been investigating. Through their reporting, they may have helped pressure the army into admitting the existence of a mass grave holding the bodies of 10 Rohingya victims. Their arrest comes after a media blackout in Rakhine State (as part of which international journalists have been forbidden from the area) and a worsening environment for media freedom and free expression nationwide in Myanmar.

Wa Lone joined Reuters in July 2016 and quickly established an esteemed reputation with his reporting on sensitive subjects, including land seizures by the powerful military, the murder of well-known politician Ko Ni, and killings by soldiers in the northeast of Myanmar. In September 2017, Kyaw Soe Oo joined Reuters and along with Wa Lone reported on the army’s repressive tactics after the militant attacks on security forces in Rakhine State on August 25, 2017.

Both Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are not only journalists, but also writers. Before becoming a journalist, Kyaw Soe Oo composed poetry, while Wa Lone is the author of a children’s book called The Gardener, a story written in both Myanmar and English that relates the importance of protecting the environment. The Gardener is one of a series published by the Third Story Project, a charitable foundation founded by Wa Lone that creates and publishes stories that aim to promote tolerance and harmony between Myanmar’s different ethnic groups.

Government officials from all over the world, including the United States, Britain, and Canada, in addition to UN officials, have called for the release of the journalists. PEN America and other international and Myanmar nongovernmental human rights and journalistic organizations have called the arrest an attack on free expression and freedom of the press.

CASE Updates

February 1, 2018: In a courtroom reportedly packed with journalists and diplomats, Wa Lone and Moe Aung were refused bail in spite of their defense lawyer submitting newspaper articles that he said showed the information and documents the two reporters are accused of having obtained unlawfully about the crisis in Rakhine state were publicly available at the time. 

January 23, 2018: As the trial commences, Police Lieutenant Colonel Yu Naing tells the court that the journalists were arrested after they were found walking along a road carrying four official documents including a list of forces and weapons belonging to a police corps in the Maungdaw district of Rakhine State. According to Yu Naing, they are also found in possession of a report on an attack by Rohingya rebels on a police station, a drawing of a map revealing the station, and a copy of a report on the status of Rohingya villages after the military crackdown. After the hearing, defense lawyer Khin Maung Zaw tells reporters that Yu Naing could not provide any evidence that the journalists were acting for the enemy.

During the hearing, Yu Naing also tells the court that one hour after the two journalists were arrested, he requested permission from President Htin Kyaw’s office to proceed with the investigation into whether the journalists had violated the Official Secrets Act. The permission from the president’s office came the following day, December 13, 2017. Defense lawyer Khin Maung Zaw says that the quick speed at which permission was granted was unusual, and normally such authorizations would be requested about a week into the case and would be delivered by a lower status minister as opposed to the president. At the end of the hearing, the prosecution objects to the request for bail for the second time and sets the next hearing date for February 1, 2018.

January 10, 2018In a brief court appearance, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are formally charged with violating the 1923 Official Secrets Act under Section 3.1 (c), which includes entering prohibited places, taking pictures, or acquiring secret official documents that “might be or is intended to be, directly or indirectly, useful to an enemy.” Zaw Aung, a lawyer for the journalists, requests that they be immediately released on bail, but the judge refuses and says the motion will be reviewed at the next hearing on January 23, 2018.

December 27, 2017: Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo appear in court after being held incommunicado for two weeks at an unrevealed location without any contact with their family or lawyers. The two journalists are allowed to meet with family members and lawyers for the first time since their arrest. At their December 27 appearance, the case is adjourned for another two weeks.

December 13, 2017The next day, the government acknowledges their arrest and releases a photograph of the two journalists in handcuffs on its Ministry of Information Facebook page.

December 12, 2017: Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are detained and then are accused of violating the Official Secrets Act by obtaining important secret papers from two policemen. According to the journalists, they were arrested almost immediately after they were given unidentified documents related to Rakhine State by two policemen, Captain Moe Yan Naing and Sergeant Khin Maung Lin, who invited them to dinner at a restaurant near the Battalion 8 compound north of Yangon. The police officers had recently been stationed in Rakhine and had just returned from duty in that area. The journalists did not read the documents as the policemen told them to review the documents at their homes. After dinner, the Reuters journalists are arrested.

Upon being seized, Wa Lone texts, “I have been arrest,” to Reuters Myanmar Bureau Chief Antoni Slodkowski. Soon thereafter, Wa Lone’s phone is turned off. Over the next 24 hours, Reuters colleagues in Yangon file a missing persons report, visit three police stations, and ask various government officials about the whereabouts of the two journalists.

Free Expression in Myanmar

Following the historic November 2015 elections, in which the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party won a decisive victory, and the establishment of a new civilian-led government in March 2016, hopes were high that the space for free expression in Myanmar would widen considerably. However, under the new government, journalists continue to be arrested and jailed for their work, while dozens of individuals have been threatened with legal charges for online expression under Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law. Working in partnership with PEN Myanmar, PEN America is campaigning for reform of the legal environment for freedom of expression and association, using our December 2015 report, Unfinished Freedom: A Blueprint for the Future of Free Expression in Myanmar, as a basis for advocacy. Concerted action is needed to abolish repressive laws, reform institutions, and support local civil society capacity to press for greater respect for free expression.

In Their Words

As Wa Lone was led out of court on January 10, 2018, he said, “They arrested us and took action against us because we were trying to reveal the truth.”  After the court hearing he also told journalists, “This is unacceptable. I want to tell you that they are charging us like this to stop us finding the truth. Their actions are wrong and unfair.”

After the hearing, Kyaw Soe Oo told reporters, “We are not doing anything wrong. Please help up by uncovering the truth.”

Massacre in Myanmar: A Reuters Special Report was published in February 2018 and is based in part on the journalists’ work just prior to their arrest.