(Adds EU lawmaker, French comment)
By Philip Blenkinsop
BRUSSELS, Jan 10 (Reuters) - The European Union called on the Myanmar authorities to release two Reuters journalists after a court hearing in Yangon on Wednesday at which prosecutors sought charges against them under the Official Secrets Act.
In one of its firmest statements yet, the 28-nation bloc, which is a significant donor to Myanmar, said that the case of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo was an important test for the country’s commitment to developing democracy after years of military rule.
“Having heard the charges brought under the Official Secrets Act of 1923, we continue to expect the Myanmar authorities to ensure the full protection of these journalists’ rights and to release them as quickly as possible,” an EU spokesman said, , adding that EU envoys had been present in court.
Describing media freedom as “the foundation and a cornerstone of any democracy”, the spokesman added: “The European Union considers this case an important test for Myanmar’s commitment to press freedom, an independent judiciary and the development of democratic institutions.”
Calls from Brussels have been echoed across Europe. On Wednesday, France urged the immediate release of the pair, saying: “Journalists must be able to exercise their profession freely, without fear of being intimidated or arrested.”
The EU highlighted that the Reuters journalists had been arrested a month ago in connection with reporting on the situation in Rakhine state where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have fled a military crackdown on militants.
“The EU reiterates its call on the Myanmar government to ensure transparency and to make serious efforts in order to hold accountable all those involved in serious human rights abuses in the context of the ongoing crisis in Rakhine state,” it said.
In the European Parliament, liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt, a former prime minister of Belgium, called on the EU authorities to be ready to follow up words with action against Myanmar.
“Using outdated laws to jail reporters covering (the) Rohingya crisis is grotesque and unjust,” Verhofstadt tweeted. “Good to see condemnation from EU envoys but further action should follow if fundamental rights continue to be violated.” (Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Richard Balmforth)