YANGON (Reuters) - A spokesman for Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi said on Wednesday he had been informed that the police had almost completed their investigation of two Reuters journalists arrested over a week ago, after which a court case against them would begin.
Zaw Htay said the two reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, would then have access to a lawyer and be able to meet members of their families.
“It will not be long. The investigation is almost done,” he said by telephone.
The spokesman said the Ministry of Home Affairs and police told him on Tuesday that the two men were being detained in Yangon, were “in good condition” and had not been subjected to “illegal questioning.”
A number of governments and human rights and journalist groups have criticised Myanmar’s authorities for holding the pair incommunicado since their arrest, with no access to a lawyer, colleagues and family members.
Asked if the police were respecting their human rights, Zaw Htay replied, “Yes, yes, I have told them not to do those things.”
“I told them to act according to the law. They guaranteed that they will act only according to the law,” said Zaw Htay, who was not more specific.
Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, have been in detention since Dec. 12. There have been no details on where they were being held as authorities proceeded with an investigation into whether they had violated the country’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act.
The act carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years.
The two journalists had worked on Reuters coverage of a crisis in the western state of Rakhine, where an estimated 655,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled from a fierce military crackdown on militants.
The United States and the United Nations have described the campaign as ethnic cleansing of the stateless Rohingya people.
The Myanmar military has said its own internal investigation had exonerated security forces of all accusations of atrocities in Rakhine.
The two journalists were arrested on Dec. 12 after they were invited to dine with police officers on the outskirts of Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon.
The Ministry of Information said last week that they had “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media”.
A number of major governments and political leaders, including the United States, Canada and Britain, and U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, have called for the journalists’ release.
Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday that the detentions appeared to be “aimed at stopping independent reporting of the ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya.”
“Their secret, incommunicado detention lays bare government efforts to silence media reporting on critical issues,” Brad Adams, the group’s Asia director, said in a statement.
Separately, the U.N. independent investigator into human rights in Myanmar said on Wednesday she had been told by the government that it would not cooperate with her or grant her access to the country for the rest of her tenure.
Yanghee Lee, U.N. special rapporteur, said she had been due to visit in January to assess human rights, including allegations of abuses against Rohingya in Rakhine state.
“This declaration of non-cooperation with my mandate can only be viewed as a strong indication that there must be something terribly awful happening in Rakhine, as well as in the rest of the country,” she said in a statement.
Myanmar government and foreign ministry spokesmen were not immediately available for comment on the criticism from Human Rights Watch and on Lee’s status.
In Washington, the leading Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee called for the immediate release of the Reuters journalists.
“This is outrageous,” said Senator Ben Cardin, who has introduced with 14 other lawmakers legislation that seeks through targeted sanctions and visa restrictions to hold senior Myanmar military officials accountable for human rights abuses.\
“It just brings back the memory of the horrible practices with the repressive military rule.”
“PRESSURE ON MEDIA FREEDOM”
The Myanmar Press Council, some of whose members are government-appointed, told a news conference in Yangon that it would like to mediate in the case of the Reuters journalists.
Thiha Saw, the council’s secretary, told Reuters that the arrests were not aimed at muzzling the media.
“I don’t agree that this is to silence the voices of the journalists attempting to cover the Rakhine issue independently ... We don’t want to generalise things,” he said.
Critics have characterised the arrests as an attack on press freedom in the former Burma and, although this is not a view widely held in Myanmar, about one-third of the roughly 100 journalists at the news conference were dressed in black as a protest against the detention of the Reuters reporters.
Myanmar has seen rapid growth in independent media since censorship imposed under the former junta was lifted in 2012.
Rights groups were hopeful there would be further gains in press freedoms after Nobel peace laureate Suu Kyi came to power last year amid a transition from full military rule that had propelled her from political prisoner to elected leader.
However, advocacy groups say that freedom of speech has eroded since she took office, with many arrests of journalists, restrictions on reporting in Rakhine state and heavy use of state-run media to control the narrative.
“If the government continues to ratchet up the pressure on the independent press, media freedom in Aung San Suu Kyi’s Burma will look a lot more like the media repression during the military junta,” Human Rights Watch’s Adams said.
Myo Nyunt, deputy director for Myanmar’s Ministry of Information, told Reuters on Saturday that the case against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had nothing to do with press freedom, and said journalists have “freedom to write and speak.”
Reporting by Shoon Naing, Thu Thu Aung, Yimou Lee, Simon Lewis and Jonathan Landay; Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Toni Reinhold