Two Reuters reporters accused of breaking Myanmar's draconian secrecy law during their reporting of the Rohingya crisis must face trial, a judge ruled Monday, on a charge that carries up to 14 years in jail.
Myanmar nationals Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were both "charged under the state secrets act", Judge Ye Lwin told the court, setting a first court date for July 16.
The pair have been held in custody for nearly seven months for pre-trial hearings. They were arrested in December and accused of possession of leaked sensitive material linked to security operations in crisis-hit Rakhine state.
Reuters says the pair are innocent and were simply doing their job by reporting on a massacre of Rohingya Muslims and has urged the judge to dismiss the case.
But Judge Ye Lwin decided the prosecution had shown enough proof that they men were "collecting evidence" from state officials to proceed the case to trial.
The legal action against them has been lambasted by rights groups and foreign observers as an assault on media freedom and an effort to stifle reporting on the Rohingya crisis.
During pre-trial hearings the prosecution argued the reporters tried to access "secret papers" and therefore deserved punishment under the British colonial-era secrecy law.
The reporters say they were entrapped by police -- a version of events seemingly backed up in court by a whistleblowing cop who testified that officers were ordered to set up the reporters.
The pair had been investigating a massacre of ten Rohingya Muslims at Inn Din village in Rakhine state during last year's military-led crackdown on Rohingya militants.
Before Reuters published its report on the massacre, Myanmar authorities admitted 10 Rohingya men had been arrested and killed illegally at the village, later prosecuting several members of the security forces.
But Myanmar has been at pains to say Inn Din was an isolated incident and not part of a wider campaign of ethnic cleansing directed against the Muslim Rohingya, as the UN and US have alleged.
Wa Lone, who has issued a defiant "thumbs up" to waiting journalists at each court appearance, vowed to fight the case.
"We have the right to a defence. The court did not decide we are guilty," he said.
In court, Kyaw Soe Oo denied any wrongdoing saying "I worked as a journalist according to the ethics."
Army operations in August 2017 forced more than 700,000 Rohingya, who are denied citizenship in Myanmar, to flee to Bangladesh.
They took with them harrowing accounts of murder, rape and arson of their villages by Myanmar security forces and mobs of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.
In March prominent rights lawyer Amal Clooney, the wife of actor George, joined the Reuters legal team to add weight and profile to their defence.
But the company's efforts were not enough to persuade the judge to dismiss the case.
"We are deeply disappointed that the court declined to end this protracted and baseless proceeding," Reuters editor-in-chief Stephen J. Adler said in a statement.
Yangon, Myanmar | AFP