YANGON (Reuters) - A court in Myanmar on Monday charged two jailed Reuters journalists with obtaining secret state documents, moving the landmark press freedom case into its trial stage after six months of preliminary hearings.
Yangon district judge Ye Lwin charged reporters Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, with breaching the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.
Both journalists pleaded “not guilty” to the charges, telling the judge they had “followed journalistic ethics”.
Speaking to reporters after the ruling, Wa Lone said he and Kyaw Soe Oo had committed no crime and would testify to their innocence in court.
“Although we are charged, we are not guilty,” he said, in handcuffs, as officials ushered him into a police truck. “We will not retreat, give up or be shaken by this.”
Chief prosecutor Kyaw Min Aung left the courthouse before reporters were able to ask him questions.
The case has attracted global attention. Some Western diplomats and rights groups say it is a test of progress toward full democracy under the administration of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in a country where the military still wields considerable influence.
The United States embassy in Yangon said it was “deeply disappointed” by the court’s decision.
“The Myanmar authorities should allow the journalists to return to their jobs and families,” it said in a post on Facebook. “Today’s decision is a setback for press freedom and the rule of law in Myanmar.”
Reuters President and Editor-in-Chief Stephen J. Adler called the case against the reporters “baseless”.
“These Reuters journalists were doing their jobs in an independent and impartial way, and there are no facts or evidence to suggest that they’ve done anything wrong or broken any law,” he said in a statement.
Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay did not answer calls seeking comment after the court ruling on Monday. He has declined to comment throughout the proceedings, saying Myanmar’s courts are independent and the case would be conducted according to the law.
The reporters’ families, including Kyaw Soe Oo’s two-year-old daughter and Wa Lone’s pregnant wife, sat close to them in the courtroom packed with diplomats and journalists.
The judge said the court had filed charges against both reporters under section 3.1 (c) of the act to probe the prosecution’s allegations that they collected and obtained secret documents pertaining to the security forces with the intention to harm national security.
The case was adjourned until July 16.
Proceedings will now enter the trial phase. Defense lawyers will summon witnesses before the judge, who will then deliver a verdict in a process likely to take several weeks, according to legal experts.
Defense lawyer Khin Maung Zaw said both reporters would be called to testify as witnesses at the next hearing.
“Naturally, I’m not satisfied...not happy,” he told reporters when asked about the court’s decision. “But I’m not losing hope. In the end we will have a happy ending.”