The two Reuters journalists jailed for reporting on the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar walked free on Tuesday.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who won the Pulitzer Prize last month, spent over 500 days in Insein Prison near Yangon and became symbols of the threat authoritarian governments pose to press freedom. They were freed as part of mass amnesties that take place annually around Myanmar's new year.
“I'm really happy and excited to see my family and my colleagues,” Wa Lone, whose daughter was born after he was jailed, told reporters as he walked out of Insein Prison. “I can't wait to go to my newsroom.”
The two journalists were immediately reunited with their young families.
“We are enormously pleased that Myanmar has released our courageous reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo,” Reuters Editor-in-Chief Stephen 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 pair were arrested in December 2017 as part of an undercover police sting operation and last September were sentenced to seven years in jail, a verdict that sparked outrage around the world — including U.S. Vice President Mike Pence calling for the government to overturn the verdict — and led to questions about Myanmar’s progress towards democracy.
In particular, the country’s de facto leader Aung San Su Kyi — who herself was a political prisoner for many years — was criticized by human rights organizations and Western governments for defending the jailing of both journalists.
“While all those who campaigned for their release welcome the government’s decision, the reality is the country retains a range of repressive laws used to detain journalists, activists and any perceived critic of the authorities,” Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s East and Southeast Asia Director said in an emailed statement. “Until these laws are repealed, journalists and activists remain under a permanent threat of detention and arrest.”
Why were they in jail?
Wa Lone, 33, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 29, were arrested while investigating the 2017 execution of 10 Rohingya men and boys by Myanmar Army soldiers in Inn Din village in northern Rakhine State. The pair were arrested shortly after meeting an undercover police officer in a restaurant in Yangon and being handed secret documents, in what was a poorly concealed entrapment plot.
Reuters subsequently published an in-depth report on the massacre and in April seven Myanmar soldiers were sentenced to 10 years in prison for their roles in the killings.
Why are they being released now?
The president traditionally pardons thousands of prisoners around Myanmar’s new year, which began on April 17.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were included in a presidential amnesty for 6,520 prisoners on Tuesday and President Win Myint has pardoned thousands of other prisoners in mass amnesties in recent weeks.
But international pressure is also likely to have played a part in the decision. UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said last September that their conviction “[sent] a message to all journalists in Myanmar that they cannot operate fearlessly, but must rather make a choice to either self-censor or risk prosecution.” Pressure mounted further last month when the two were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting.
Why this is a big deal?
The arrests and jailing of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have shone a spotlight on the state of Myanmar in. Activists warn that there are many other journalists and bloggers in Myanmar who have been arrested — and that the rate of these arrests is increasing.
Amnesty International says it has seen “a surge in politically motivated arrests” over the course of the last month, including:
- Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, the founder of the Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival, was detained in connection with Facebook posts critical of the military and the 2008 constitution.
- Ye Ni, the editor of the Burmese section of independent news website The Irrawaddy, is facing “online defamation” charges for an article which the Myanmar military deemed “one-sided.”
- A group of five people was taken into custody and are facing charges of defamation and making “statements conducing to public mischief” after they live-streamed a satirical Thangyat performance mocking the Myanmar military during Myanmar’s new year festival.
“The crisis is not over for the literally dozens of other Burmese journalists and bloggers who are still facing baseless criminal charges for their reporting about the Tatmadaw or NLD government officials,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch said in an emailed statement. “Myanmar's faltering respect for media freedom indicates the dire situation facing human rights and democracy as the country moves toward national elections in 2020.”
Cover: Reuters journalists Wa Lone, left, and Kyaw Soe Oo wave as they walk out from Insein Prison after being released in Yangon, Myanmar Tuesday, May 7, 2019. The chief of the prison said two Reuters journalists who were imprisoned for breaking the country's Officials Secrets Act have been released. (AP Photo/Thein Zaw)
This article originally appeared on VICE News US.