The two reporters had spent a total of 511 days far from their families because they dared to investigate a subject that is banned in Myanmar, the genocide of the country’s Rohingya minority.
Held on trumped-up evidence after being arrested in a trap set by the police in December 2017, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were convicted last September of violating the Official Secrets Act and were given seven-year jail sentences that were confirmed twice on appeal. They were finally pardoned by President Win Myint.
“As well as the release of two individuals who should never have been in prison – Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo – this is a fundamental victory for press freedom and for RSF, which had campaigned constantly ever since their arrest,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“Their case is emblematic of investigative journalism’s importance for the functioning of democracies. We hail the role played by all those civil society actors who, both in Myanmar and internationally, never forgot the fate of these two journalists and kept fighting for them until this successful outcome.”
A month after their arrest, RSF launched a petition for their release to draw the public’s attention to their case. After their conviction in September 2018, RSF addressed an open letter to government leader Aung San Suu Kyi, deploring her handling of the case and reminding her how press freedom had previously helped her fight for democracy. The following month, RSF issued a “incident report” about the threat to Myanmar’s position in the World Press Freedom Index.
When their lawyer filed an appeal in November 2018, RSF and more than 50 other international and local NGOs issued a joint letter highlighting the many flaws and inconsistencies in the prosecution’s case. And in January 2019, RSF supported the candidacies of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo for UNESCO’s Guillermo Cano Press Freedom Prize, which they were awarded last month.
Today’s release must not eclipse the fact that investigative reporters in Myanmar now have a permanent threat hanging over them. RSF had predicted last December that a presidential pardon could be granted after all appeal possibilities had been exhausted but, at the same time, RSF had warned of the problems in this scenario.
The civilian authorities have finally made a show of clemency but the journalists’ conviction has been upheld, maintaining a dangerous judicial precedent that allows the military and nationalists to save face. Although Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are finally reunited with their families, all other journalists have been sent the chilling message that they too could face 18 months in prison if they dare to investigate subjects that are off limits.
Myanmar is ranked 138th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index, one place lower than in 2018.