Two Reuters journalists were formally charged by police in a Myanmar court yesterday with breaching a colonial-era secrecy law that carries up to 14 years in jail, provoking a barrage of calls for their immediate release.
Myanmar nationals Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, were arrested a month ago under the Official Secrets Act after they were allegedly given classified documents by two policemen over dinner.
The pair had been reporting on the military campaign in the northern state of Rakhine that has forced some 655,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee over the border to Bangladesh since August.
The UN and US have condemned the violence as ethnic cleansing.
The issue is incendiary inside Myanmar, where authorities deny wrongdoing and say the army was cracking down on militants from the Muslim minority.
A district judge said police charged the pair under a section of the Official Secrets Act which punishes anyone who "obtains, collects, records or publishes... any official document or information" which could be "useful to an enemy".
The pair will return to court on January 23 for legal arguments, when the bench will decide whether to accept the case under Myanmar's arcane legal system.
There were emotional scenes in the Yangon courthouse, with family members in tears and the reporters making desperate pleas before being led back into detention after they were denied bail.
"Please tell the people to protect our journalists!" Kyaw Soe Oo shouted to the court.
His colleague Wa Lone said his wife was pregnant, adding: "I'm trying to be strong."
Their families have suggested the pair were set up, saying the arrests took place immediately after leaving the restaurant where they dined with the two policemen.
The officers are also under arrest but did not appear in court on yesterday.
The case against the Reuters journalists has shocked Myanmar's embattled press corps.
Reporters covering yesterday's proceedings wore black in protest against their arrest and carried banners proclaiming "Journalism is not a crime".
Reuters said it was "extremely disappointed" that the authorities were seeking to prosecute.
"We view this as a wholly unwarranted, blatant attack on press freedom," said Reuters Editor-in-Chief Stephen J. Adler.
'TRAVESTY OF JUSTICE'
The US Embassy in Myanmar led reaction to the court decision, expressing disappointment and calling for the "immediate release" of the reporters.
"For democracy to succeed and flourish, journalists must be able to do their jobs," the embassy statement added.
Reporters Without Borders said the two reporters were being used as "scapegoats" to intimidate journalists, as rights groups condemned their continued detention.
"These charges are a travesty of justice and should be dropped," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
The case has cast a spotlight on Myanmar's troubled transition to democracy after nearly five decades of military rule.
It touches both on shrinking press freedom and the Rohingya crisis, two issues that have raised questions about the country's ability to shake off the legacy of junta rule.
Much of the Buddhist-majority population supports the army in what it calls a justified campaign against Rohingya militants, after their attacks on border guard police killed about a dozen people last August.
The military has severely restricted access to Rakhine to reporters, aid groups and observers.
Several legal cases against journalists have disappointed those hoping the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi would usher in a new era of freedom.
Her administration shares power with an army that still controls all security policy and other key levers of government.
Suu Kyi's time in office has also been dominated by the Rohingya crisis, with criticism from around the globe of her refusal to denounce the army's crackdown and allow in international investigators.