BANGKOK — Two journalists for the Reuters news agency were formally charged in Myanmar with obtaining state secrets, prosecutors said Wednesday, in a case seen as a key test of the country’s nascent political freedoms.
The reporters, U Wa Lone and U Kyaw Soe Oo, have been accused of violating the Official Secrets Act, a law dating to the British colonial period that carries a maximum punishment of 14 years in prison.
The journalists were brought to court in Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital, where they were arrested on Dec. 12, almost immediately after being given unidentified documents by members of the police.
Before their arrest, the journalists had been investigating the existence of a mass grave in Rakhine State, where a military campaign against Rohingya Muslims has sent more than 655,000 members of the persecuted minority fleeing to Bangladesh over the past four and a half months.
While the United States and the United Nations have called the campaign against the Rohingya ethnic cleansing, the Myanmar government has blocked independent investigators and journalists from the epicenter of violence, making it difficult to gather proof of atrocities.
But Rohingya in Bangladesh refugee camps have given consistent accounts of rape and murder at the hands of the Myanmar military and Buddhist vigilantes. Satellite images collected by human rights groups document the destruction by fire of hundreds of Rohingya villages in northern Rakhine.
Negotiating a scrum of journalists gathered in front of the Insein courthouse in Yangon on Wednesday morning, Mr. Wa Lone struck a defiant pose, raising his cuffed hands and later flashing a thumbs-up sign.
“We are not doing anything wrong,” Mr. Kyaw Soe Oo told journalists after the hearing. “Please help us by uncovering the truth.”
A lawyer for both journalists, U Than Zaw Aung, said that Mr. Wa Lone is suffering from a hernia and back pain but has received no medical treatment while in detention. The next court appearance for his clients will be on Jan. 23, he said.
“The situation is very unclear,” said Ma Pan Ei Mon, Mr. Wa Lone’s wife. “I’m hoping all the time that he will be released soon.”
In a statement, Stephen J. Adler, the president and editor in chief of Reuters, called the move to prosecute the reporters “a wholly unwarranted, blatant attack on press freedom,” adding, “We believe time is of the essence and we continue to call for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s prompt release.”
The secretary general of the United Nations, António Guterres, has previously called for the pair to be released, as has Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson. “For democracy to succeed and flourish, journalists must be able to do their jobs,” the United States Embassy in Myanmar said Wednesday in a statement calling for the men to be freed.
Although Myanmar now has a civilian government, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the military that ruled the country for nearly half a century still controls the most important levers of power. The Tatmadaw, as the military is known, runs the Home Ministry, which administers Myanmar’s internal affairs, including its prisons and police.
Human rights groups have accused the police of entrapping the two Reuters journalists by giving them documents that were then deemed state secrets. Ms. Pan Ei Mon said her husband never had a chance to look at the papers before he was arrested.
Myanmar’s elected civilian government has been accused of acquiescing to a crackdown on the media that belies the commitment to democratic values once espoused by Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s governing party, the National League for Democracy. Since the party took power from a quasi-civilian administration in 2016, at least 32 journalists have been charged with various crimes, according to We Support Journalists, a local media watchdog.
Many of the journalists have been imprisoned after reporting on abuses taking place in Myanmar’s ethnic frontier lands, where the military has been fighting various ethnic guerrilla groups for decades.
U Swe Win, a veteran journalist and former political prisoner who is himself facing defamation charges that could return him to jail, noted that the news media, which had been muzzled during military rule, enjoyed a renaissance during a period of transitional governance from 2011 to 2015, when U Thein Sein, a former junta general, led the country.
Dozens of new publications emerged from the shadow of censorship in those years. But today, local reporters are uncertain whether their investigations, particularly into military malfeasance, might land them behind bars.
“Now we don’t have transparency, and we don’t know what’s happening inside the government,” Mr. Swe Win said.
“All we know is that we journalists are always facing problems with the military,” he added, “which means the civilian government has no power.”