An altered image released by Myanmar's Ministry of Information shows two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, in handcuffs.

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Journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested in December

Reuters' chief has called their arrest a "blatant attack on press freedom"

CNN  — 

Prosecutors in Myanmar have sought charges under its Official Secrets Act against two Reuters reporters, which could see them jailed for up to 14 years, the news agency said.

Journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo appeared in court Wednesday, almost one month after their arrest on December 12 while working on stories about the Rohingya minority in Rakhine state, Reuters reported, citing the men’s lawyers.

The charges sought are under Section 3 (1)(c) of the act, which “covers entering prohibited places, taking images or handling secret official documents that ‘might be or is intended to be, directly or indirectly, useful to an enemy,’” the news agency said.

Reuters Editor-in-Chief Stephen Adler said the agency was “extremely disappointed” at what he termed an “wholly unwarranted, blatant attack on press freedom.”

Family members react as Reuters journalist Kyaw Soe Oo leaves after a court appearance in Yangon on January 10, 2018.

“Our colleagues should be allowed to return to their jobs reporting on events in Myanmar. We believe time is of the essence and we continue to call for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s prompt release,” Adler said in a statement.

The reporters previously appeared in court in December, but no charges were sought. Following that appearance, they were permitted to meet relatives and a lawyer for the first time since their arrest, the news agency reported. The case has been adjourned until January 23.

Myanmar bans UN official as military finds mass grave in Rakhine

Govt: Reporters ‘illegally acquired information’

In a statement to Reuters in December, the Myanmar government said the reporters had been detained after they “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media.”

An image of the two men in handcuffs with their faces partially obscured was published on the Ministry of Information’s page.

Rohingya migrant women cry as they sit on a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea on May 14, 2015.  The boat crammed with scores of Rohingya migrants -- including many young children -- was found drifting in Thai waters on May 14, according to an AFP reporter at the scene, with passengers saying several people had died over the last few days.     AFP PHOTO / Christophe ARCHAMBAULT        (Photo credit should read CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images)
Who are the Rohingya and why are they fleeing?
02:30 - Source: CNN

According to the US Embassy in Myanmar at the time of their detention, the journalists were arrested “after they were invited to meet with police officials.”

The two reporters were working in Rakhine State, the location of alleged ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, the state’s minority Muslim population. The Myanmar government says the army has been conducting operations against militants who attacked border posts.

Reuters journalist Kyaw Soe Oo (C) talks to the media as he leaves after a court appearance in Yangon on January 10, 2018.

Since the start of the military operation in August last year, more than 650,000 Rohingya had fled across the border to neighboring Bangladesh.

The reporters’ arrests came just ahead of the release of the results of a survey by medical aid organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF; also known as Doctors Without Borders) which showed that a minimum of 6,700 Rohingya – including 730 children – were killed by shooting and other violence between August 25 and September 24. The report also claims that at least 2,700 others died from disease and malnutrition.

The aid agency’s death toll far surpasses estimates from Myanmar’s government, which has put the figure in the hundreds.

Press associations, officials from the US, UK and Canada, and the UN Secretary General have appealed for the reporters’ release.

On Tuesday, former US President Bill Clinton added his voice to calls for the men to be freed.

“A free press is critical to a free society - the detention of journalists anywhere is unacceptable. The Reuters journalists being held in Myanmar should be released immediately,” Clinton said in a tweet.