IT SOUNDS almost too ridiculous to be true. Two Burmese journalists are invited to dinner by the police, who hand them documents. As soon as they leave the restaurant, the pair are arrested by different policemen, apparently lying in wait. They are accused of breaking a colonial-era official-secrets law, enacted in 1923 and barely used since. In the early stages of the trial one of the policemen involved admits he burnt his notes. Another witness writes the name of one of the journalists on his hand, along with the street where the police say they arrested them, to help him remember what to say. The restaurant’s owner says she never saw the two men, but then admits she would not have been able to see them from where she sits anyway.

Unfortunately, it is not fiction. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who work for Reuters, were jailed in December and denied access to lawyers for two weeks. On March 7th they were hauled into court for the latest hearing. If found guilty they could face a prison sentence of up to 14 years. Their trial demonstrates just how far press freedom, which had seemed to be improving, has retreated under the government of Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy advocate whose National League for Democracy took over from a military regime in 2016.

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At the time of their arrest Mr Wa Lone and Mr Kyaw were looking into the killings in September of ten men from the Rohingya Muslim minority in a village in Rakhine state. The report, published in February by Reuters while the two journalists were behind bars, suggests the army was responsible. In January the army released a statement acknowledging that soldiers had killed some captured “Bengali terrorists”, although it claims they were under attack from 200 Rohingya militants at the time—a claim Reuters could not find anyone to corroborate. The documents the pair say they were handed by the police relate to the conflict in Rakhine, from which 700,000 Rohingyas have fled since August.

The trial is not an isolated incident. Ms Suu Kyi appears to have little regard for freedom of the press. By one count, 29 journalists have been arrested since she came to power, although most have been released. Others have faced online abuse and death threats from Buddhist nationalists. In November two foreign journalists were charged under a similarly obscure law, the Aircraft Act of 1934, for flying a drone over the parliament building. Defamation laws are also being used more often. Other forms of dissent are being squashed too. On March 5th hundreds of people marched in the city of Yangon against proposed legal changes that would make public protests even harder to organise. Even if Mr Wa Lone and Mr Kyaw are acquitted, or if the case is dropped, the message to journalists is clear: report on the army’s misdeeds, and risk years behind bars.

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