Reuters journalist Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo
Detained Reuters journalist Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo sit beside police officers as they leave Insein court in Yangon, Myanmar. Picture taken: July 9, 2018REUTERS/Ann Wang

A court in Myanmar on Monday, July 9, charged two jailed Reuters journalists with obtaining secret state documents, moving the landmark press freedom case into its trial stage after six months of preliminary hearings.

Yangon district judge Ye Lwin charged reporters Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, with breaching the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.

At the time of their arrest in December, the reporters had been working on an investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys in a village in western Myanmar's Rakhine State.

The killings took place during a military crackdown that United Nations agencies say led to more than 700,000 Rohingya fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh.

Both journalists pleaded "not guilty" to the charges, telling the judge they had "followed journalistic ethics."

Reuters journalist Wa Lone
Detained Reuters journalist Wa Lone speaks to the media while leaving Insein court on July 9 in Yangon, MyanmarREUTERS/Ann Wang

"Although we are charged, we are not guilty," Wa Lone said, in handcuffs, as officials ushered him into a police truck. "We will not retreat, give up or be shaken by this."

The case has attracted global attention. Some Western diplomats and rights groups say it is a test of progress towards full democracy under the administration of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in a country where the military still wields considerable influence.

Here is what US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said in a statement:

A free press is fundamental to democracy. Journalists not only keep citizens informed but they hold leaders accountable. We call on the Burmese government to allow these journalists to return to their families and continue their work."

Reuters President and Editor-in-Chief Stephen J. Adler called the case against the reporters "baseless".

These Reuters journalists were doing their jobs in an independent and impartial way, and there are no facts or evidence to suggest that they've done anything wrong or broken any law."

The judge said the court had filed charges against both reporters under section 3.1 (c) of the act to probe the prosecution's allegations that they collected and obtained secret documents pertaining to the security forces with the intention to harm national security. The case was adjourned until July 16.

Proceedings will now enter the trial phase. Defence lawyers will summon witnesses before the judge, who will then deliver a verdict in a process likely to take several weeks, according to legal experts.

The two journalists face a prison sentence of 14 years.

Detained Reuters journalist Kyaw Soe Oo
Detained Reuters journalist Kyaw Soe Oo carries his daughter Moe Thin Wai Zin while escorted by police during a court hearing in Yangon, Myanmar, June 5, 2018.Ann Wang/REUTERS

Earlier this month, defence lawyers said the journalists were arrested in a sting operation by the police that was aimed at interfering with their reporting.

At the same July 2 hearing, prosecutor Kyaw Min Aung said documents they had in their hands when they were arrested detailed the movements of security forces, while further documents found on their mobile phones ranged from confidential to top secret.

The reporters have told relatives they were arrested almost immediately after being handed some rolled up papers at a restaurant in northern Yangon by two policemen they had not met before.

In April, Police Captain Moe Yan Naing testified that a senior officer had ordered his subordinates to plant secret documents on Wa Lone to "trap" the reporter.