Reuters pair released in Burma
After almost 18 months in prison, two Reuters journalists jailed for reporting on alleged atrocities committed by Burma’s military against the minority Rohingya people have been released.
The two men, Wa Lone, 33, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 29, were convicted of breaking Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act but have been pardoned by President Win Myint as part of a New Year’s amnesty.
It is the custom in Burma at New Year for thousands of people to be released from the country’s overcrowded prison system.
Supporters and members of the press greeted the men recently as they walked out the gates of Insein prison near the city of Yangon, smiling broadly.
“I’m really happy and excited to see my family and my colleagues,” Wa Lone told media as he left the prison. “And I can’t wait to go to my newsroom.”
The pair were arrested in December 2017 outside a restaurant in Yangon.
At the time, they had been working on the story of a massacre of 10 Rohingya men in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. The report subsequently won a Pulitzer Prize.
In court, Wa Lone described the night of their arrest, when they were apparently the targets of a setup.
A policeman called Wa Lone to meet. The Reuters bureau chief suggested he bring a second reporter along – Kyaw Soe Oo, a new employee visiting from Rakhine.
They went with two police officers for a drink and a snack at a beer garden, and as they were leaving, one of them handed Wa Lone a newspaper with documents inside.
Men in civilian clothes then surrounded them, and one yelled, “These are secret documents!” Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were handcuffed and thrust into cars.
Reuters maintained the men’s innocence and it fought for their release.
The pair were sentenced to seven years in prison in September, convicted of breaking a 1923 law that relates to possessing official documents.
Last month the journalists lost an appeal to Myanmar’s Supreme Court, exhausting their avenues for legal appeals.
The reporters were released to Lord Ara Darzi, a British surgeon who has served as a member of an advisory board to Myanmar’s government as well as a representative of Reuters.
He was involved in the pardon discussions and said their release “shows that dialogue works, even in the most difficult of circumstances”.
“We are enormously pleased that Myanmar has released our courageous reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo,” Reuters Editor-in-Chief Steve Adler said in a statement.
“Since their arrests 511 days ago, they have become symbols of the importance of press freedom around the world. We welcome their return.”
The United Nations said it welcomed their release and considered it “a step toward improving the freedom of the press and a sign of Government’s commitment to Myanmar’s transition to democracy. The UN stands ready to continue to support Myanmar in its complex transition process”.
Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney served as counsel to the journalists and Reuters. She had high praise for the persistence of their employer.
“It is inspiring to see a news organization so committed to the protection of innocent men and the profession of journalism,” Ms Clooney said in a statement.
“It has been an honour to represent Reuters and the two journalists in this case, and I hope that their release signals a renewed commitment to press freedom in Myanmar,” she said.
AMES Australia Senior Journalist