Reuters journalists Wa Lone (R) and Kyaw Soe Oo
Reuters journalists Wa Lone (R) and Kyaw Soe Oo celebrate with their children after being freed freed from Insein prison after a presidential amnesty in Yangon on May 7, 2019. Image Credit: AFP

HONG KONG: Two Pulitzer-winning Reuters journalists held in Myanmar for more than 500 days for their coverage of the crackdown on Rohingya Muslims were freed from jail Tuesday, ending a prolonged detention that has tainted Myanmar and its Nobel laureate civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested in December 2017 and later charged with violating the country’s colonial-era secrets act. They were accused of possessing secret documents, but were widely believed to have been set up. In September they were convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison.

The two journalists were lured into a meeting with police officers who handed over rolled-up documents and they were then arrested shortly afterward by other officers.

The journalists and their lawyers have insisted that they were merely doing their job as reporters, never had the chance to read the documents before they were detained and had not been planning to share state secrets.

The pair have been bestowed with multiple honours and awards for their investigation into a massacre of 10 Rohingya Muslims, the story they were working on at the time of their arrest. These include the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting, journalism’s highest honour, which they won in April.

Their Reuters colleagues posted video and photos of the two journalists Tuesday walking out of the gates of Yangon’s Insein prison, carrying a single bag each with their few possessions, smiling. They were mobbed by a crowd of cameras and onlookers upon their exit.

“I’m really happy and excited to see my family and my colleagues,” Wa Lone said in brief comments upon his release, thanking everyone around the world who helped secure his freedom. “I can’t wait to go to my newsroom.”

The 33-year-old is a father of a baby girl who was born when he was jailed. Kyaw Soe Oo, 29, also has a young daughter. Their wives had repeatedly appealed to the Myanmar government to pardon their husbands.

The two journalists have come to be a symbol of Myanmar’s fading democratic hope and promise under its Nobel laureate civilian leader. Both men grew up under Myanmar’s dark days of military rule, and worked as reporters during the country’s dramatic transition to a largely civilian-led government. Suu Kyi’s government was widely expected to end the arbitrary detention of government critics, free political prisoners and continue a media renaissance that the country was experiencing at the time.

Yet her government has instead clamped down on free expression and continued to use archaic and widely criticised laws to imprison those like Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. When they were first arrested, they were held incommunicado, without access to their family or colleagues.

Their prosecution then dragged on for months, despite a slew of evidence suggesting they were set up. Prosecution witnesses shared absurd details during the trial; one police officer said he burned his notes at the time of his arrest and another kept checking notes written on his hand as he testified.

Suu Kyi herself has also been under significant pressure to intervene in the case and free the journalists, including from Vice President Pence and others. However, she has defended their detention and said they were not jailed for their reporting, but because they broke the law.

Domestically, however, there has been less sympathy for the pair. The Rohingya crisis has largely divided Myanmar and the international community, with an overwhelming majority within the country believing the crackdown — which has sent over 800,000 mostly Rohingya Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh in one of the world’s largest refugee crises — was justified. Many in Myanmar took to social media declaring the two journalists as traitors for exposing the massacre, with some suggesting they were paid to make Myanmar look bad. Their families have been subject to harassment and threats.

They were released as part of a mass presidential amnesty, which saw more than 6,000 people freed Tuesday, the third such amnesty marking the traditional new year holiday that took place last month. Almost all legal avenues for their release had been exhausted, and lawyers for the pair said they had given up on the judicial system after Myanmar’s highest court rejected their appeal late last month.

Their release was immediately and widely celebrated across the world. Reuters editor in chief Stephen J. Adler said in a statement that the news agency is “enormously pleased” that they had been released.

“Since their arrests 511 days ago, they have become symbols of the importance of press freedom around the world. We welcome their return,” he said.

Suzanne Nossel, chief executive officer of PEN America, a non-profit that defends the advancement of literature and human rights, said the journalists have proven their “courage and fortitude.”

These are “young men who have now proven themselves as world-renowned journalists, 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 said. “They should now be allowed to return to their work without hindrance.”

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), a non-profit that tracks and assists political prisoners held in Myanmar, estimates there are 48 political prisoners jailed in the country. Hundreds of others have been charged and are facing trial inside Myanmar and abroad.

“Everyone should be released,” lawyer Than Zaw Aung said. “There are still some prisoners that have been jailed because of the freedom of expression. My own desire is for all of them to be freed.”

The journalists’ release Tuesday was unexpected for many, and was not a certainty until the moment they were first seen walking toward the prison gates. Their families were not there, waiting for news of their release at the Reuters office in Yangon.

Chit Su Win, Kyaw Soe Oo’s wife, said she chose not to make the trip because her hopes for his release had been raised and dashed many times.

“I would not be able to stand the situation if we came [to the prison] to welcome them, but they were not released,” she said by phone. “I couldn’t even speak for a while when [Kyaw Soe Oo] called me telling me that he was released.”

When she told their young daughter her father had been freed, the girl started dancing, Chit Su Win said.