2018 Literary Gala: Presentation of the 2018 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award
Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, are journalists who specialize in politically sensitive subjects. When arrested they were on assignment by Reuters investigating the torching and pillage of Inn Din, a village in Rakhine state, including the execution of 10 Muslim Rohingya men accused by the military of participating in political unrest. Their reporting contributed to an early February Reuters exposé on Inn Din, including vivid photographic evidence and numerous eyewitness accounts documenting the alleged atrocities. Myanmar military officials admitted to the killings on January 10 and have said that they are investigating the circumstances. If convicted under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, the journalists, now held at Insein Prison in Yangon, face up to 14 years in prison. Learn more about their story here.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were honored with this year’s PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, presented at the 2018 PEN America Literary Gala. Wa Lone’s brother and Kyaw Soe Oo’s wife accepted the awards on their behalf, presented by author Margaret Atwood. Below are the full remarks of Atwood, who read a letter from the imprisoned journalists before presenting the award.
When democracy is in retreat, the first thing authoritarians do is silence those who are telling stories they dislike. Journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have the misfortune of working in a country with a long record of suppressing independent voices, a history that appears to be hard to leave behind.
We may comfort ourselves by believing that this kind of persecution happens only in distant countries like Myanmar. But the autocrats’ playbook for discrediting critical coverage—long documented in places like Russia, China, and Iran—is now going viral. The number of journalists jailed worldwide has recently hit an all-time high. And many journalists are not even jailed: They are simply murdered.
While the United States isn’t putting reporters in prison yet, the tactics of the current administration are dangerous. They include attacking and discrediting reporters by name, threatening to punish unfavorable coverage, trying to convince the public that reputable and accountable news outlets cannot be trusted, and branding certain news organizations as the enemies of the American people. And the U.S. administration is leading by example: ‘Fake news’ is now an international knee-jerk response by strongmen and dictators seeking to discredit accurate reporting and valid criticism, and to destroy democracy in the process.
The PEN organizations in America, the U.K., and my native Canada have traditionally championed persecuted writers in faraway places like Myanmar, the home of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. That work has become ever more important as democracies have come under attack in many countries around the world.
But in face of the present threats to the free press right here in the United States, PEN America has redoubled its energies at home. The systematic effort to drive a rift between access to knowledge and the citizens of a country has a familiar ring to this dystopian novelist. The resolve that news organizations have displayed is admirable: They are reporting with gusto and their audiences have grown; but, according to polls, nearly half the country no longer trusts much of what they say or write. These people do not believe some other source of news; instead, they don’t know what to believe. Authoritarians love this state of affairs: Where there is no belief, there is likely to be no opposition.
When I wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, I made sure that nothing went into it that had not come from somewhere in history. I used journalists, historians, and other nonfiction writers as my sources. When you publish such a novel, you hope your work will remind people that “It can’t happen here” has simply never been true. As Aldous Huxley said in his 1965 introduction to the radio version of Brave New World, “Eternal vigilance is not only the price of liberty; eternal vigilance is the price of human decency.”
Please join PEN America in demanding the freedom of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, imprisoned in Myanmar, and also in defending the sanctity of truth and the role of the press right here in the United States.
And now, a few words from Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo themselves that I have been given to read on their behalf.
The Words of 2018 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award Winners Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo
“We are now in Insein prison just because we covered the news. We don’t have a desk to write on.
The truth about what happened in Rakhine is important for our country. Without the truth, we can never solve our country’s problems. [That goes for every country.] So, we’d like to ask the government:
‘Where is the truth? Where is the truth and justice? Where is democracy and freedom? Why do soldiers, who are found guilty of murder, get 10 years while we journalists, who exposed the murder, face 14 years in prison? Do you think that’s fair?’
We only did our work as reporters. We want the people to understand that we never betrayed the country.
The government can arrest us like this, waste our time in the court for many days, and stop us from being able to write news. But we want to tell them right here that they can never hide the truth. We, journalists, will find the truth, even though they are sending us to prison.
We are deeply humbled to receive this award. Unfortunately, we will not be able to attend the event because we are here at court facing a very long process. We have already been here for nearly half a year, and we face up to 14 years in prison. We never did anything wrong. We were simply doing our jobs. We never violated any journalistic ethics; however, we will not lose hope and will face the proceedings as best as we can. We do believe that the truth will bring justice to us. The news needs to be written and expressed openly in our country, and right now we can’t report it. We are grateful for the support of PEN America, Reuters, and all those others working on our behalf to help us regain our freedom. The award is an encouragement that we have the backing of people from around the world who love the freedom of the press and democratic values. We desperately miss our families, our friends, and our newsroom. Your encouragement fortifies our hopes.”
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo