Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who in recent months have covered the military crackdown on the Rohingya Muslim minority in Burma, were recently invited to meet two police officers over dinner in the country's largest city, Rangoon.
Their driver dropped them off at Battalion 8's compound around 8 p.m. Tuesday, and the journalists and police officers went to a nearby restaurant, according to Reuters. The driver waited.
But the journalists never returned to the car. They were instead detained at a police station on the outskirts of Rangoon, officially called Yangon. The Reuters Burma Bureau chief, Antoni Slodkowski, received just four words in a text message from Wa Lone:
“I have been arrest.”
Wa Lone's phone appeared to have been turned off soon after.
“We are outraged by this blatant attack on press freedom,” Reuters president and editor in chief Stephen J. Adler said in a statement. “We call for authorities to release them immediately.”
The Burmese Embassy in Washington could not immediately be reached for comment.
Reuters and the Associated Press reported that Burma's Ministry of Information posted a photo on Facebook of the two journalists in handcuffs and said they had been in possession of “important secret papers” and information about the military that they obtained from the two police officers who had previously worked in the country's western Rakhine State — where rapes and killings since August have forced 600,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.
The U.S. Embassy in Burma and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists are among several agencies that denounced the arrests and called for the journalists' release.
The journalists and the policemen with whom they met will be charged under the country's 1923 Official Secrets Act — a law carried over from British colonialism — and could serve up to 14 years in prison, according to the Facebook statement, Reuters reported. The post no longer appears on the Ministry of Information's Facebook page, but BBC journalist Nga Pham tweeted what she said was the image of the journalists.
After their disappearance Tuesday evening, the journalists' colleagues in Rangoon filed a missing-persons report, visited three police stations and inquired with several government officials about what might have happened to the two reporters. As of Wednesday evening, they still had no information.
Wa Lone joined Reuters in 2016 and has covered the Rohingya Muslims exodus. He won an honorable mention from the Society of Publishers in Asia for his reporting on the crises, according to Reuters. He graduated from Yangon University, according to his LinkedIn page.
Kyaw Soe Oo, an ethnic Rakhine Buddhist from the state capital Sittwe, started with Reuters in September. He reported on the Aug. 25 attacks in northern Rakhine that sparked much of the flight of the Rohingya Muslims and has reported in the central part of the state as well, where local Buddhists have begun segregating Rohingua Muslims and Rakhine communities.
Rohingya Muslims are not officially recognized as a minority in Burma — also known as Myanmar — even though many have lived there for generations. Many among the predominantly Buddhist population, including Burmese officials, reject the label “Rohingya” and instead use “Bengalis” to emphasize that Rohingya Muslims migrated illegally to the country from Bangladesh.
Last month, the United States classified the violence and atrocities against the Rohingya Muslims as “ethnic cleansing.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned that U.S. sanctions could be forthcoming and blamed Burma's government, military and local vigilantes for the “horrendous atrocities” in Rakhine state.
Burma's military denies that atrocities have been committed, and members of other religious groups, such as Buddhists and Hindus, say that they are in fact targets of violence by Rohingya Muslims.
The U.S. Embassy said in a statement that it is “deeply concerned by the highly irregular arrests” of the two journalists.
“For a democracy to succeed, journalists need to be able to do their jobs freely,” officials said. “We urge the government to explain these arrests and allow immediate access to the journalists.”
The European Union delegation in Burma said in a Facebook statement: “Media freedom is the foundation of any democracy.”
The senior Southeast Asia representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Shawn Crispin, called on Burma's government to “immediately, unconditionally release” the reporters.
“These arrests come amid a widening crackdown which is having a grave impact on the ability of journalists to cover a story of vital global importance,” he said in a statement.
Other journalists have been arrested in Burma in recent months. In November, a judge jailed two journalists on assignment for TRT World, the English-language subsidiary of the Turkish Radio and Television Corp., who had been flying a drone near parliament without permission, according to Reuters.
In June, three Burmese journalists were arrested for reporting on a drug-burning event by a rebel army in the north Shan state, Reuters reported. They were also charged with violating colonial-era law and released in September.