The UN’s Secretary-General has condemned the arrest of two journalists in Myanmar, saying that their arrest is symptomatic of eroding freedoms in the Southeast Asian country.
Speaking to the press in Tokyo Thursday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres framed the plight of the two detained men “in relation to the dramatic violations of human rights that occurred in the country, and led to 600,000 people being forced to flee.”
Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were working on stories about the Rohingya minority in western Rakhine state, when they were arrested Tuesday, the news agency has confirmed.
“Probably the reason why these journalists were arrested is because they were reporting on what they have seen in relation to this massive human tragedy,” said the UN Secretary-General.
The Rohingya, who are a stateless Muslim minority, have have been the target of a sustained campaign of aggression by the Myanmar army, forcing some 650,000 to flee across the border to neighboring Bangladesh since August this year.
In September Guterres’ human rights chief characterized the actions of the Myanmar military in Rakhine as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
The two reporters were arrested under the Official Secrets Act, a colonial-era law which carries a maximum 14-year jail sentence. Police officers who they were meeting were also arrested, according to Reuters.
By Thursday evening (local time), the agency reported that the Myanmar government had not formally contacted its representatives, and that the two men’s whereabouts were unknown. Both journalists are Myanmar citizens. According to a Reuters report, Kyaw is a native of Rakhine state.
The Secretary-General called the arrests an indicator of the “erosion of press freedom” in the country.
“I think it is important that the international community does everything possible to allow not only for the journalists to be released — freedom of the press is very important — but also to allow for those reasons that might justify or might have justified the reason or the reasons of the arrest to disappear,” he said, referring to the wider crackdown on Rohingya.
Addressing the Rohingya issue directly, the UN chief called on Myanmar’s government to ensure that “humanitarian aid to be effectively delivered … violence to be effectively contained … reconciliation to be promoted and … the right of return of this community to be fully respected and implemented.”
The Southeast Asian Press Alliance, representing twelve journalists groups, condemned the arrests and called for their release.
“We are deeply concerned over possible violation of their citizens’ rights since we have learned about the journalists not being allowed to contact their family members after their arrest,” a statement from the NGO reads.
“We urge the authorities to explain this incident with transparency and release both journalists immediately.”