Two Reuters journalists who have been detained in Myanmar for two weeks were remanded in custody for a further fortnight as a probe into allegations that they breached the broad Official Secrets Act continues.
Their alleged offences carry a sentence of 14 years.
Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, were allowed to meet their families and lawyer for the first time when they appeared in court since their arrest on December 12.
The two “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media”, according to the authorities.
They said they had not been mistreated. There has been international condemnation of their arrests as an attack on press freedom.
“The situation is OK,” Wa Lone said outside the court. “We will face it the best we can because we have never done anything wrong. We have never violated the media law nor ethics. We will continue to do our best.”
Dozens of journalists appeared at the court wearing black shirts to demand their release.
The pair are facing proceedings under the colonial-era act for allegedly possessing documents related to the brutal crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State, a highly sensitive issue in the military-dominated state.
The US announced last week that it was sanctioning Major General Maung Maung Soe, who was in charge of the Rakhine operations.
Washington said it had “examined credible evidence of Maung Maung Soe’s activities, including allegations against Burmese security forces of extrajudicial killings, sexual violence and arbitrary arrest as well as the widespread burning of villages”.
Media and NGO access in Rakhine is tightly controlled and journalists are often forced to seek information from unconventional sources, according to the BBC.
“We are facing the same kind of harassment under the civilian government as we did under the military government,” said Thar Lun Zaung Htet, head of a Burmese media group. “It is not fair for the two journalists to be charged under the Official Secrets Act because they were doing their job as journalists who tried to get information.”
They worked for the news agency on the Rakhine crisis, where an estimated 655,000 Rohingya have fled since August 25.
The US, UN and EU have called for their release.
The two men were arrested after being invited to meet police for dinner in Yangon.
Reuters denied any wrongdoing and defended their right to report on the globally significant issue.
More than a dozen journalists have been arrested over the past two years, including two foreign reporters and a Burmese journalist working for Turkish state broadcaster TRT. In October they were sentenced to two months in prison with their driver for flying a drone near Nay Pyi Taw’s parliament building.
Press freedom is severely limited in Myanmar. Picture credit: Asean Economist