Journalists Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone (Myanmar) will share this year’s UNESCO/Guillermo Cano Press Freedom Prize, following the recommendation an international jury of media professionals.
Both laureates were serving seven-year prison sentences when the awards were issued. At the time of their arrest in Yangon on 12 December 2017, they were working for the Reuters news agency, reporting on alleged human rights violations in Myanmar’s state of Rakhine.
The UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize will be awarded on 2 May as part of the celebration of World Press Freedom Day (3 May) which is taking place in Ethiopia this year. The theme chosen for the celebration this year is “Media for Democracy: Journalism and elections in times of disinformation.”
The Prize recognizes outstanding contributions to the defence or promotion of press freedom especially in the face of danger. It is named after Guillermo Cano Isaza, the Colombian journalist who was assassinated in front of the offices of his newspaper El Espectador in Bogotá, Colombia, on 17 December 1986.
“Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo symbolize their country’s emergence after decades of isolation,” said Wojciech Tochman, President of the Jury. “Both from modest, provincial backgrounds, they worked hard to pursue careers that would have been impossible in the junta era into which they were born. They were arrested because they documented a taboo topic regarding crimes committed against Rohingyas. The final choice of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo pays a tribute to their courage, resistance and commitment to freedom of expression,” he added.
In addition to the UNESCO award, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were also honored with the Pulitzer Prize for “expertly exposing the military units and Buddhist villagers responsible for the systematic expulsion and murder of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar” and “courageous coverage” that landed them in prison.
Wa Lone, 33 and Kyaw Soe Oo, 29, both from Myanmar, were arrested in December 2017 and were later sentenced to seven years in prison for their reporting.
The two were framed by the police who planted military documents on them, held them incommunicado for several weeks, and then arrested them for collecting state secrets. Instead of dropping the charges when a policeman confirmed this setup, the court put them in jail.
On January 10, 2018, the two journalist were charged with violating the Official Secrets Act, a rarely invoked law created during the British colonial period that punishes taking images or obtaining documents that might be or are intended to be “useful to an enemy,” which carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years.
Prosecutors have charged the journalists with obtaining important and secret state documents relating to the crisis in Rakhine State, from which some 680,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled since August 2017.
On September 3, 2018 the pair were found guilty under Section 3.1.c of the Official Secrets Act and sentenced to 7 years in prison with hard labor.
On appeal, a judge upheld the original conviction and charges on January 11, 2019, sending the case to the Supreme Court.
Last Tuesday, April 25th, the Supreme Court of Myanmar upheld the original conviction and charges.
UPDATE: Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were released from prison by a presidential pardon on May 7, 2019, just a few days after receiving the World Press Freedom Prize in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The UNESCO Director-General issued the award to the pair in absentia on May 2 during a World Press Freedom Day event being held at the African Union.