After 511 Days, Myanmar Releases Reuters' Journalists Arrested For Reporting On Rohingya Crisis
Internationally famed Reuters Journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, both citizens of Myanmar, were released from prison under a mass Presidential amnesty on Tuesday (7th May,2019). The Washington Post reported that this was the third presidential amnesty which included the release of over 6000 people on account of the traditional new year holiday last month. Their release comes at a time when almost all legal avenues for their release had been exhausted. Their lawyers had said they had given up on the judicial system following the rejection of their appeal at Myanmar’s highest court late last month.
Arrested journalists’ colleagues posted video and photos of the two journalists smiling on social media, as they walked out of the gates of Yangon’s Insein prison, each carrying a single bag of their possessions. They were mobbed by a crowd of cameras and onlookers upon their exit.
“I’m really happy and excited to see my family and my colleagues,” Wa Lone said in brief comments upon his release, thanking everyone around the world who helped secure his freedom. “I can’t wait to go to my newsroom,” freed Wa Lone exalted.
The arrest and the verdict against the journalists
According to BBC, both Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28 are Myanmar nationals and were working as reporters for the international news agency. They were reporting on the murder of 10 Rohingya men by the army in the village of Inn Din in northern Rakhine in Myanmar. Before the report could have been published, the duo were arrested by the police moments after being handed ‘some documents’ by two policemen. The two reporters had met the policemen earlier at a restaurant for the first time.
A Myanmar court on September 3, found the two Reuters reporters guilty and sentenced them to seven years in prison. The charge leveled against them was breaking the country’s Official Secrets Act while they were conducting an investigation into the killings of the ten muslim Rohingya men. Giving the verdict presiding judge Ye Lwin stated that the reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had breached the colonial-era Official Secrets Act.
The Judge who presided over the case observed that the reporters had already served nine months behind bars. This, he said would be deducted from their 7-year-long prison sentences. The judgement was widely condemned by western countries and press freedom activists alike who considered the verdict as a blow to the freedom of the press in Myanmar.
Not pleading guilty under the Official Secrets Act
According to Al Jazeera, both the reporters had pleaded ‘not guilty’ and held their ground while contending that they were framed by the police. In fact, one police official even testified to the fact that the restaurant meeting was set up to entrap the reporters for reporting on the atrocity of the Rohingya men. The police official was then jailed for a year for violating police regulations.
The reporters also testified that both of them were just doing their work and functioning like normal reporters and that they did not solicit any secret document. As several appeals for bail had earlier been rejected, the only way out for the defense was to appeal to the regional court first and then the Supreme Court.
The archaic act, under which the reporters have been arrested was set in place by the British in 1923. It makes the sharing of any kind of information held by the government as a criminal offence. The specific charges against the reporters were a part of section 3 of the said act which accuses the two of passing information that could be ‘useful to the enemy.’
Journalists awarded Pulitzer prize
While they were still in prison, they were awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize on April 15th for their investigation on the massacre of ten Muslim Rohingya men by Buddhist villagers and Myanmar security forces.
“I’m thrilled that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo and their colleagues have been recognized for their extraordinary, courageous coverage, and our photojournalists for their moving pictures that show humanity defying huge obstacles,” Reuters Editor-in-Chief Stephen J. Adler had said.
As a tribute to their courage and commitment, the 2019 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano Press Freedom Prize, which is awarded for the defense and promotion of press freedom was also awarded to the two journalists.