Journalists across America will launch a campaign Friday in support of two Reuters journalists arrested and charged in Myanmar for reporting on “ethnic cleansing” of Rohingya Muslims by the country’s military.
Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, were arrested on Dec. 12 after contributing to Reuters’ coverage of the crisis in the state of Rakhine, where killing and abuse of the Rohingya minority have been blamed on the Myanmar army. The United Nations estimates more than 650,000 Rohingya have fled their homes in the face of what the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein, called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
The pair have been detained since then and on Wednesday were formally charged under Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act. The men may face up to 14 years in prison.
The country’s ministry of information said the journalists were arrested “for possessing important and secret government documents related to Rakhine state and security forces,” claiming they “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media.”
The NewsGuild of New York, which counts around 3,000 members in the state and is part of the 25,000-strong nationwide NewsGuild ― which represents many Reuters employees in the United States ― launched a campaign Thursday, called “Journalism Is Not a Crime,” in support of the two men and calling for their release.
“The journalists and media professionals of the NewsGuild of New York call for the immediate release of the two Reuters journalists who — for doing their jobs — have been detained in Myanmar under an outdated and unjust law,” the NewsGuild of New York said in a statement to HuffPost.
“We loudly echo the journalists who are vocal in supporting Wa Lone and Kyaw She Oo: Journalism is not a crime. Silencing the press is an abhorrent and an intolerable act of cowardice. We stand in solidarity with Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.”
The NewsGuild will be spreading awareness of the detained Reuters employees online, calling for journalists and supporters to change their social media avatars to graphics in solidarity with the arrested journalists.
NewsGuild of New York President Grant Glickson told HuffPost the arrest of the Reuters journalists was a “betrayal” of journalists.
“Given the current hostile climate toward media professionals in the United States, the arrest of these two Myanmar journalists, which is a grave betrayal of a free press, hits especially close to home. We are concerned for our colleagues around the world, and we are concerned for the state of journalism as the concerted effort to silence the press becomes more overt,” Glickson said.
“We must take a stand at every opportunity to say that journalism is not a crime; a free press is critical; and in order for democracy to thrive, we must do our jobs.”
Valerie Volcovici, a Reuters journalist and NewsGuild member, said the detention of her colleagues in Myanmar was just the latest in a worrying global trend of attacks on, and undermining of, journalists and the media.
“The feeling is that this can happen to any of us. Whether in Myanmar or Washington, D.C., there’s a feeling among my colleagues that the press is under attack now all around the world,” she told HuffPost.
“In the U.S., it’s under attack in a frighteningly casual way. ‘Fake news’ is used every day; it’s a joke. It’s concerning to all of us. It undermines what we do. We work hard to tell the truth, check our sources. Whether it’s being detained by authorities or being joked about in a casual way, we feel we’re under attack.”
Volcovici said the news of her colleagues being arrested in Myanmar “really shook” Reuters employees around the world.
“They were just two young men doing their jobs, to get really important news out to the rest of the world,” she said.
“It’s not just about our Reuters colleagues but bringing awareness to what’s happening in the industry and the broader issues of the free press. Attacks on the press have risen. It’s not just about people being handcuffed. It’s comments being thrown at journalists, being defamed. It has become so casual to attack and undermine the work journalists are trying to do.”
“We want to bring attention to the full range of attacks on the press, arrests, violence, casual demeaning.”
The case of the Reuters journalists has been taken up by politicians and human rights observers worldwide, including former U.S. President Bill Clinton. On Tuesday, Clinton called for the men to be “released immediately.”
Amnesty International said the men had “done absolutely nothing wrong.” James Gomez, Amnesty’s Southeast Asia director, called for the pair to be “immediately and unconditionally released.”
“This is clearly an attempt by the authorities to silence investigations into military violations and crimes against Rohingya in Rakhine State, and to scare other journalists away from doing the same,” Gomez said.
“These arrests have not happened in a vacuum, but come as the authorities are increasingly restricting independent media. Journalists and media outlets, in particular those who report on ‘sensitive topics,’ are living with the constant fear of harassment, intimidation or arrest. This clampdown on freedom of speech must end.”