Two Reuters journalists jailed in Myanmar after they were convicted of breaking the Official Secrets Act have been released from prison after spending more than 500 days behind bars.
- The two journalists were charged under Myanmar’s state secrets act in July 2018
- Reuters maintained that the two had never committed any crime
- The reporters were investigating the killing of 10 Rohingya ethnic minority Muslims
The two reporters, Wa Lone, 33, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 29, had been convicted in September and sentenced to seven years in jail, in a case that raised questions about Myanmar’s progress toward democracy and sparked an outcry from diplomats and human rights advocates.
Reuters said the two men did not commit any crime and had called for their release.
Swamped by media and well wishers as they walked through the gates of Insein Prison, a grinning Wa Lone gave a thumbs up and said he was grateful for the international efforts to secure their freedom.
“I’m really happy and excited to see my family and my colleagues. I can’t wait to go to my newsroom,” he said.
Before their arrest in December 2017, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had been working on an investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys by security forces and Buddhist civilians in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State during an army crackdown that began in August 2017.
The operation sent more than 730,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh, according to United Nations (UN) estimates.
The report the two men authored, featuring testimony from perpetrators, witnesses and families of the victims, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in May, adding to a number of accolades received by the pair for their journalism.
Calls to a spokesman for the Myanmar government were not immediately answered.
President Win Myint has pardoned thousands of other prisoners in mass amnesties since last month.
It is customary in Myanmar for authorities to free prisoners across the country around the time of the traditional New Year, which began on April 17.
Amal Clooney, counsel to Wa Lone, Kyaw Soe Oo and Reuters, told reporters of her hopes that the journalists’ release would signal “a renewed commitment to press freedom in Myanmar”.
“It is inspiring to see a news organisation so committed to the protection of innocent men and the profession of journalism.”
‘Dialogue works, even in the most difficult of circumstances’
Myanmar’s Supreme Court had rejected the journalists’ final appeal in April.
They had petitioned the country’s top court, citing evidence of a police set-up and lack of proof of a crime, after the Yangon High Court dismissed an earlier appeal in January.
The reporters’ wives wrote a letter to the government in April pleading for a pardon, not, they said, because their husbands had done anything wrong, but because it would allow them to be released from prison and reunited with their families.
But in less than a month, the two journalists were released at the prison to Lord Ara Darzi, a British surgeon and healthcare expert who has served as a member of an advisory group to Myanmar’s government, and a Reuters representative.
- The journalists had been working on an investigation into the killings of 10 Rohingya men in Rakhine state, following an army crackdown in the region in August 2017
- Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested by Myanmarese police in December 2017
- The men had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting into the Rohingya in May 2018
- A Yangon court found them guilty of breaching the Official Secret Act in July 2018
- They were sentenced to seven years’ jail in September 2018
- The Yangon High Court dismissed an appeal in January 2019
- The Myanmar Supreme Court dismissed an appeal in April 2019
- They were released as a result of a Presidential pardon in May 2019
Lord Darzi waited for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo at the gates of Insein prison on a street where dozens of reporters and photographers expecting a release of prisoners were also waiting.
In a statement to Reuters, Lord Darzi, 59, said the release of the two journalists came after ‘months of dialogue’ with the Myanmar government.
“I am delighted that the Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, have been granted a pardon, released from custody, and are with their loved ones once more,” Lord Darzi told Reuters in a statement.
“This outcome shows that dialogue works, even in the most difficult of circumstances.”
He said discussions about the pardon for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had involved the Myanmar government, Reuters, the UN and representatives of other governments but did not provide more detail on those closed-door talks.
Stephen J Adler, Reuters’ editor-in-chief, released a statement expressing the organisation’s “enormous” pleasure at their staff’s release.
“We are enormously pleased that Myanmar has released our courageous reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo,” he said.
“Since their arrests 511 days ago, they have become symbols of the importance of press freedom around the world.”
Lord Darzi has been a member of an advisory commission that was formed to see through the advice from a panel headed by former UN chief Kofi Anan on solving the long-running conflict in Myanmar’s western region in the state of Rakhine.
Rakhine, on the Bay of Bengal, was the home to most Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
Hundreds of thousands fled to Bangladesh after a military-led crackdown on the region in 2017.
Senior Myanmar government officials, diplomats and some international representatives are meeting in Yangon to discuss Rakhine this week.
“The power of dialogue must be turned towards securing a lasting peace in Rakhine State and the return of the hundreds of thousands of refugees, whose desperate plight continues,” Lord Darzi said.
“This is essential if Myanmar is to build on today’s progress so that all its citizens can live together in dignity in the hope of a better tomorrow.”