SINGAPORE — A Myanmar judge will decide next week whether two Reuters journalists will be charged with violating the country’s colonial-era secrecy law over their coverage of the Rohingya crisis after hearing arguments in court Monday.

The two journalists, Wa Lone, 32 and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, are accused of breaking the country’s Official Secrets Act, an offense punishable by up to 14 years in prison. They were arrested in December and have been held in jail since, prompting outrage from rights groups and foreign governments, which have accused Myanmar, also known as Burma, of rolling back press freedoms, especially in the aftermath of the Rohingya crisis in western Rakhine state. 

“We hope for the best and are prepared for the worst,” said Khin Maung Zaw, defense lawyer for the pair, after the court proceedings Monday. If they are charged, the case will go to trial, dragging out the whole affair for many more months. 

On April 11, a Myanmar judge refused to dismiss the case against two Reuters journalists who are being accused of possessing classified government papers. (Reuters)

Lawyers for the pair say that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were entrapped by police officers, broke no laws and were simply doing their jobs as reporters. The two journalists were invited by police officers to a meeting Dec. 12 at a restaurant in Yangon, where they were handed papers that allegedly linked security forces to an attack on Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state. The journalists say they were then almost immediately arrested by police, who held them incommunicado for two weeks and accused them of “illegally obtaining” confidential documents. They have been denied bail and are shuffled, handcuffed and surrounded by dozens of officers, between Yangon’s notorious Insein prison and court every time a hearing is scheduled.

Wa Lone, handcuffed while speaking to reporters after Monday’s hearing, said he hoped for a fair ruling.

“As they can’t prove that we broke any laws, [this case] will be done fairly soon. I believe in our justice [system]. I believe the court will decide fairly,” he said. 

At the time of their arrest, the two journalists had been investigating a massacre of 10 Rohingya Muslims in a village in Rakhine state last year.

Following militant attacks on police posts in August, the military led a crackdown on Rohingya Muslims that forced more than 700,000 to flee to neighboring Bangladesh amid allegations of indiscriminate killing, arson and rape.

The journalists’ investigation, published by Reuters in February, reconstructed the killings of the 10 Rohingya Muslims through accounts from security forces and villagers who took part in them. 

“Myanmar authorities set up and arrested the two Reuters journalists because of their work exposing a massacre of Rohingya by the military,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities have turned to tactics long-favored by past military juntas — locking up and prosecuting those exposing the truth.”

The prosecution, however, has argued that the documents the reporters possessed were secret and could harm Myanmar’s national security. The Officials Secret Act punishes anyone who intends to communicate an official document or information that may be “useful to an enemy.” It does not require prosecutors to prove that the dissemination of that material could lead to real harm. 

Central to the defense’s arguments is police Capt. Moe Yan Naing, who testified in court that he was ordered to “trap” one of the two journalists by handing them the documents as a pretext for arrest. The officer has since been sentenced to a year in prison for violating the police force’s disciplinary code, and his family was evicted from their home in what the government said was an unrelated matter. 

Media organizations and the international community see the closely watched case — packed with contradictions, conflicting accounts by police officers and absurd moments — as a litmus test for press freedom in Myanmar.

Tight controls on media in the country were loosened in 2012 as Myanmar moved from decades of harsh military rule toward a more democratic system. But in recent months, press watchdogs have raised alarm over long-standing laws, which they say are being used with increasing frequency to stifle free expression, fair reporting and dissent. 

Suppression of the press “marks a dramatic reversal in recent press freedom gains and augurs ill for the country’s delicate transition from military to elected rule,” wrote Shawn Crispin of the Committee to Protect Journalists in February. 

Zaw Htay, a spokesman for Myanmar’s government, said the court will make a decision “according to rule of law.” The government has assured the pair “equal rights under the constitution,” he added.

In a recent interview with the Japanese broadcaster NHK, Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto civilian leader, also said that the court proceedings were “in accordance with due process” and that the journalists’ fate will be decided by the judiciary, which, on paper, is independent of the Myanmar government. 

In a statement, Stephen J. Adler, president and editor in chief of Reuters, said this was a “critical juncture” in the case. 

Charging “Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo . . . without any proof of their having done anything unlawful would seriously undermine Myanmar’s constitutional guarantee of free speech,” he said. 

“We remain optimistic that the court will thoroughly consider the evidence before it and bring this proceeding to a close as quickly as possible,” he added.

Aung Naing Soe reported from Yangon, Myanmar.