By Eugene Brown Agyei, University of Ghana
Although behind bars somewhere in Myanmar, Reuters reporters Kyaw Soe Oo, 29, and Wa Lone, 33, jointly received this year's UNESCO/Guillermo Cano Press Freedom Prize on Thursday, May 2, at this year's World Press Freedom Day celebrations in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The Prize recognizes outstanding contributions of journalists to the defence or promotion of press freedom especially in the face of danger or threats. It is named after Guillermo Cano Isaza, a Colombian journalist who was assassinated in front of the offices of his newspaper El Espectador in Bogotá, Colombia, on December 17 1986.
The two reporters have been in prison since December 12, 2017 - they are to serve a seven-year prison term for allegedly reporting and subsequently leaking their government's 'state secrets'.
The two were further 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,” . Their country's law, stipulates a maximum prison sentence of 14 years for people who violate this act.
“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."
At the presentation ceremony, the jury recounted how hard it was for them to arrive at these two because according to them, all the seven shortlisted candidates deserved the award. Interestingly, six out of the seven shortlisted candidates are all behind bars, the jury said.
"The final choice of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo pays tribute to their courage, resistance and commitment to freedom of expression,” Tochman said.
The award was received by a brother of Wa Lone on behalf of the Laureates.