NEW YORK—PEN America announced today that it would award the 2018 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award to imprisoned Myanmar reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were arrested on December 12, 2017, and charged with violating the Official Secrets Act for their work investigating violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

The PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, conferred annually, recognizes an imprisoned writer targeted for exercising freedom of speech. Of the 42 jailed writers who have received the award since 1987, 37 have been released due in part to the global attention and pressure the award generates.

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.

The Freedom to Write Award was bestowed on Burmese writers on four occasions during the rule of Myanmar’s military government. Two of the awardees, poet and journalist Ma Thida and blogger Nay Phone Latt, joined forces in 2013 to launch PEN Myanmar, a now thriving, autonomous Yangon-based center that works to defend free expression and open discourse. This is 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 region is grave and worsening.

“Ethnic violence in Myanmar has profound implications for the country’s social fabric, political future, and international stature; it is a story that cannot be buried. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were unearthing dark truths with the rigor of professional journalists: interviewing eyewitnesses on all sides and collecting physical and photographic evidence,” said PEN America Executive Director Suzanne Nossel. “Having honored imprisoned writers during the junta, we at PEN America lauded the advent of reform, hoping that the jailing of writers was a thing of the past. It is now clear we celebrated too soon. The prosecution of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo for the crime of exposing alleged atrocities is a jarring reminder that the fight for free expression in Myanmar remains incomplete and urgent. We are proud to honor these dauntless reporters and hope the award sounds a powerful signal that global concern for human rights in Myanmar will not let up.”

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. In its 2015 report, Unfinished Freedom: A Blueprint for the Future of Free Expression in Myanmar, PEN America details the fraught landscape for free expression in Myanmar, in particular for media freedom, in the years following the end of the military junta’s rule.

The PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award will be conferred on Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo at the 2018 PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History on May 22. The gala will also honor legendary novelist Stephen King with the Literary Service Award and Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy for excellence in publishing. Past Freedom to Write Award honorees include Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov (2017), Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji (2016), Azerbaijani investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova (2015), Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega (2012), and recently deceased Chinese Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and Independent Chinese PEN Center founder Liu Xiaobo (2009).


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.


Michele Riggio, Director of Communications: [email protected]

Anoosh Gasparian, External Relations Coordinator: [email protected]