Pressured over press rights, Myanmar frees Reuters reporters
YANGON, Myanmar — Two Reuters journalists whose reporting on the Myanmar military's abuses of Rohingya Muslims got them imprisoned and drew the world's attention to curbs on freedom of the press were freed Tuesday as part of a mass presidential pardon.
Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, walked out of Yangon's notorious Insein Prison at about 9:40 a.m. As they passed through the front gate, waving to the gathered crowd, they were mobbed like rock stars by fellow reporters who as professionals had covered their plight and as colleagues pushed for their release.
"I want to say that I am very happy today. I want to thank our friends and families who were trying for our freedom and also to those from all over the world who sympathized with us," Wa Lone said. "I am really excited to see my family and colleagues. I can't wait to go to my newsroom."
Then they were hustled into a black van and taken to reunite with their families.
The two reporters were arrested in December 2017 as they were working on a story about security forces involved in killing Rohingya and were accused of illegally possessing official documents, a violation of the colonial-era Official Secrets Act. At their trial the two contended they were framed because of official displeasure over their work, but they were convicted last September and sentenced to seven years in prison.
The case drew global attention not only as a media freedom issue but also as an example of how democratic reforms in Myanmar have stalled under Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's civilian government, which took power in 2016 with high hopes that it would usher in a new, more open era after decades of isolation under military rule.
It also came as international condemnation built over the brutal counterinsurgency campaign that Myanmar's military — which still maintains unchecked control of key ministries such as those responsible for security — launched in the western state of Rakhine, driving more than 700,000 members of the Rohingya minority group to flee to Bangladesh. U.N. officials and others likened the offensive to ethnic cleansing, or even genocide.
Stories based on reporting from Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were published while they were in prison and the two last month were part of a Reuters team that won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting, one of journalism's highest honors. They shared the award with The Associated Press, which won for its reporting on Yemen.
Zaw Htay, a spokesman for the office of President Win Myint, told journalists he spoke with in the eastern state of Kayah on Tuesday that the reporters' families had sent letters requesting they be pardoned, and they were included among 6,520 prisoners released to promote peace and national reconciliation.
The families of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, their employer, press freedom groups, and journalist associations around the world had called for their release all along. Prospects looked grim after Myanmar's Supreme Court on April 23 rejected their final appeal of their prison terms, and even grimmer after they were not included in two other recent mass pardons.
It wasn't clear what had changed by Tuesday, but the news was welcomed by rights groups and many others.
"I think this will reduce the pressures on Myanmar's government by the international community," said Yan Myo Thein, a political analyst. "Releasing them is progress. But it will be better for democracy and the transition of Myanmar if the president will consider releasing (all) those who are in jail for exercising freedom of expression."