NEW YORK—A judge’s decision that the case against Reuters reporters and 2018 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award winners Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo will move forward to a full trial represents a brazen attempt to silence investigative reporting in Myanmar and a gross failure of the courts to uphold the rule of law, PEN America and PEN Myanmar said in a statement today.

Arrested on December 12, 2017, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were charged the following day under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years. Prior to their arrest, the pair had been investigating the ethnic violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, which contributed to a Reuters exposé released in February 2018. The detailed report delved into the pillage of Inn Din, a village in Rakhine state, and investigated the execution of 10 Muslim Rohingya men who were accused of inciting political unrest by the military; the military admitted to the killings in January. The pair have spent over six months in detention after their initial arrest, facing weekly pre-trial hearings before a judge to decide whether the state had sufficient evidence to pursue this case in trial. The pre-trial hearings showed not only a lack of evidence against the two journalists but also suggested that the police had framed the Reuters journalists; however, the presiding judge has decided that the case will move forward to a full trial. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo pleaded not guilty. 

“Today’s decision is a grave disappointment and an alarming retreat for press freedom in Myanmar,” said Suzanne Nossel, Chief Executive Officer at PEN America. “By indefinitely extending Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s ordeal, the Myanmar government has shown imperviousness to international standards for human rights and press freedom. Today’s decision ​strikes a harsh blow for Myanmar’s democratic hopes. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s professional reporting to expose human rights violations should be applauded, not penalized, and they should be reunited with their families. PEN America calls for their immediate and unconditional release.”

In February, PEN America honored Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo with the 2018 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, conferred annually, which recognizes an imprisoned writer or writers targeted for exercising freedom of speech. Of the 42 jailed writers who have received the award since 1987, 37 journalists to have been released due in part to the global attention and pressure the award generates. This was the first time that PEN America has recognized honorees from Myanmar since the country held elections in 2015, marking international recognition that, despite significant political reforms, the situation for human rights and free expression in the country is grave and worsening. In May, PEN Myanmar and 19 other partners released its second annual Freedom of Expression scorecard, which noted continued declines in this foundational right.

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PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. pen.org

CONTACT: 

Karin Deutsch Karlekar, Director, Free Expression at Risk Programs: kdkarlekar@pen.org