Myanmar Releases Reuters Journalists Jailed for Reporting on Rohingya Crackdown
HONG KONG — Two prizewinning Reuters journalists were released from prison in Myanmar on Tuesday after more than a year in detention for covering the country’s deadly crackdown on the Rohingya minority group, ending a drama that had brought global scrutiny upon the country’s de facto civilian leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
The two reporters, U Wa Lone, 33, and U Kyaw Soe Oo, 29, were arrested in December 2017. They were sentenced in September to seven years in prison under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act for receiving documents from a police officer as part of their investigation into a 2017 massacre of 10 Rohingya villagers.
The men, along with their Reuters colleagues, were awarded in April the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting, one of journalism’s most coveted and prestigious honors.
On Tuesday morning, they were mobbed by reporters as they emerged from Insein Prison in Yangon, the country’s largest city. They were both smiling as they walked away from the prison’s gates in the sunshine. Mr. Wa Lone flashed a thumbs-up sign.
“I’m really happy and excited to see my family and my colleagues,” he told reporters. “I can’t wait to go to my newsroom.”
Stephen Adler, the editor in chief of Reuters, in a statement praised the men as “courageous reporters.”
“Since their arrests 511 days ago, they have become symbols of the importance of press freedom around the world,” Mr. Adler said. “We welcome their return.”
The two reporters were released as part of a wider presidential pardon that freed more than 6,000 prisoners.
Their case had become an international cause célèbre, with journalists, human rights activists and world leaders calling for their release. And their arrest, like the ethnic conflict they were covering, was a turning point in the West’s perception of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former political prisoner who had once been seen as an international force for democracy and tolerance.
When Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi became the country’s de facto civilian leader in 2016 after her political party swept landmark elections a year earlier, many people in Myanmar and beyond thought she would promote those same values while in office.
Instead, she has often allied herself with the military, which shares power with civilian leaders under Myanmar’s military-imposed constitution.
In 2017, the military set off an intense international backlash by carrying out what the United Nations has called a genocide of the Rohingya people, a Muslim ethnic minority whose members had lived in the western state of Rakhine for generations. The military killed thousands of people, burning villages, raping women and girls and forcing more than 750,000 to flee across the border into Bangladesh, where they now live in refugee camps.
The United Nations has said that Myanmar’s top generals should be investigated on charges of genocide.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has also presided since 2016 over what rights activists say is a crackdown on free speech. Since her party took power, the number of journalists arrested in Myanmar has increased to 43, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report.
Her government’s detention of Mr. Wa Lone and Mr. Kyaw Soe Oo, who were convicted of violating a state secrets law, was widely seen as a prime example of that crackdown.
Their defense lawyers argued that the evidence in the case was planted by the police and that the rolled-up documents they were handed contained information that was already public. The reporters testified at trial that they were arrested so quickly that they never had a chance to look at the documents.
In April, they lost their final appeal in Myanmar’s Supreme Court. After that decision, a lawyer for the men said their last chance at release was through petitioning the country’s legislature or its president, U Win Myint.
On Tuesday, U Khin Maung Zaw, a lawyer for the journalists, thanked Mr. Win Myint for releasing his clients. “He has fulfilled the hopes of the international community and their family members,” he said.
Mr. Kyaw Soe Oo’s wife, Chit Su Win, thanked the government for releasing her husband and his colleague, and said that she would not hold a grudge against it.
“I have no words to express my happiness,” she said.
Meanwhile, praise for Mr. Wa Lone and Mr. Kyaw Soe Oo poured in from around the world.The United Nations office in Myanmar said in a statement that it welcomed their release and considered the move a step toward improving press freedom and a sign of the government’s “commitment to Myanmar’s transition to democracy.”
Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive of PEN America, a nonprofit group that advocates freedom of expression, said in a Twitter thread that the journalists were courageous for never wavering in their claims of innocence.
“They have long and important careers ahead of them carrying out the essential work of holding Myanmar’s fledgling new government accountable and keeping their country’s deserving public informed,” she added.
Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said that while he welcomed their release, dozens of other journalists and bloggers in Myanmar were still facing what he called “baseless” criminal charges for having reported on the military or officials in Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy.
U Zaw Htay, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s spokesman, was not immediately available for comment on Tuesday morning.