Burma, Reuters journalists
A protester wearing a Wa Lone mask (centre) takes part in a demonstration demanding his release at Inya lake bank in Yangon, on Jan 20, 2018. Source: Reuters

Students from Columbia Journalism School in New York are collecting books and well wishes for two Reuters journalists currently detained in Myanmar.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo – who had reported extensively on the Rohingya crisis for the global news agency – were first detained by police last December after being invited for dinner.

They have subsequently been charged under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act and face more than a decade in prison, sparking fears of a crackdown on press freedom amid what the United Nations has called “ethnic cleansing” against Rohingya Muslims in the country’s Rakhine State.

The Committee to Protect Journalists tweeted on Friday that Columbia Journalism was launching a book drive and collecting messages of support for the two journalists. The items would be delivered to Wa Lone’s brother in Myanmar, it said.

According to Reuters, both men are book lovers and Wa Lone has even written a children’s book in Burmese and English. He founded the non-profit Third Story Project which produces and distributes storybooks to communities that cannot afford them, aiming to promote harmony between Myanmar’s diverse ethnic groups.

A group of 50 Pulitzer Prize winners has called the arrests “an outrageous attack on media freedom” and demanded the immediate release of the two journalists.

“Journalism is not a crime,” Yanghee Lee and David Kaye, the UN special rapporteurs on Myanmar and on freedom of expression have said in relation to the case.

Detained Reuters journalist Wa Lone is escorted by police during a break at a court hearing in Yangon, Myanmar, on Feb 1, 2018. Source: Reuters/Jorge Silva

“These detentions are another way for the government to censor information about the military’s role in Rakhine State and the humanitarian catastrophe taking place.”

Some 690,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar into neighbouring Bangladesh since Aug 25, when the military launched so-called “clearing operations” in the Rakhine. Myanmar’s Tatmadaw army has been accused of atrocities including arson, mass killings and rape.

“We believe the court proceedings will demonstrate their innocence and Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo will be able to return to their jobs reporting on events in Myanmar,” said Reuters Editor-in-Chief Stephen J. Adler in a statement last week.

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