Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters Wa Lone, 33, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 29, were freed from prison on Tuesday under a presidential amnesty, after spending more than 500 days behind bars.
The unexpected release of the two Reuters journalists garnered widespread celebration and praise from press freedom advocates and human rights defenders around the world.
The two had received the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia just a few days before they were pardoned.
UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay issued a statement welcoming the news.
"Four days after the celebration of World Press Freedom Day, when they were awarded the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize, I welcome the decision to release Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone," she said.
Describing the journalists’ “dedication” and “courage” as an inspiration to others, Director-General Azoulay insisted on Tuesday that their release had helped to advance press freedom.
“This is a relief for them, their loved ones, but also a positive step forward for press freedom," she continued. “UNESCO recalls that it is essential to the functioning of our democracies that journalists can carry out their mission without fear of reprisals."
Director-General Audrey Azoulay awarded the pair the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize on the recommendation of an international jury of media professionals.
The award ceremony was held in their absence on May 2 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where the main celebrations of World Press Freedom Day were held this year.
Over the last year and a half, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who also won this year's Pulitzer Prize for international reporting, have become synonymous with the rising danger that journalists are facing the world over.
Both journalists were employees of the Reuters News Agency at the time of their arrest in Yangon on 12 December 2017, investigating allegations of human rights violations in Rakhine State, Myanmar.
OHCHR Spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani said that while it was good news that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had been released, “they should never have been convicted and arrested in the first place."
"Our office, you may recall had put out a report in September last year, right after their sentences were first confirmed, and that report detailed the very dire situation for freedom of expression in Myanmar, and this has not changed," she said.
The two journalists had been convicted in September last year and sentenced to seven years in jail in a case that raised questions about Myanmar’s progress towards democracy and sparked an outcry from diplomats and human rights advocates.
They were released under a presidential amnesty for 6,520 prisoners by President Win Mynt, who pardoned thousands of prisoners as part of the traditional New Year festivities.
It is customary in Myanmar for authorities to free prisoners across the country around the time of the traditional New Year, which began on April 17.
Reuters has said the two men did not commit any crime and had called for their release.
Before their arrest in December 2017, they had been working on an investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys by security forces and Buddhist civilians in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State during an army crackdown that began in August 2017.
The operation sent more than 730,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh, according to U.N. estimates.
The report the two men authored featured testimony from the alleged perpetrators, witnesses and families of the victims. It was awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in New York, for international reporting in April, as well as the 2019 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize in Addis Ababa.
Government spokesman Zaw Htay said the decision to release the two was made after the families wrote to government leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
“We took the letters into consideration and released them in the interest of the country,” Zaw Htay told reporters.
Reuters Editor-in-Chief Stephen J. Adler welcomed the news.
“We are enormously pleased that Myanmar has released our courageous reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. Since their arrests 511 days ago, they have become symbols of the importance of press freedom around the world. We welcome their return,” Adler said.
The U.S. Embassy also welcomed the release and said it was glad the two could return to their families.
Myanmar’s Supreme Court had rejected the journalists’ final appeal in April. They had petitioned the top court, citing evidence of a police set-up and lack of proof of a crime, after the Yangon High Court dismissed an earlier appeal in January.
The reporters’ wives wrote a letter to the government in April pleading for a pardon, not, they said, because their husbands had done anything wrong, but because it would allow them to be released from prison and reunited with their families.
The Reuters journalists were released at the prison to representatives of Reuters and to Lord Ara Darzi, a British surgeon and health care expert who has served as a member of an advisory group to Myanmar’s government on reforms in Rakhine State.
“This outcome shows that dialogue works, even in the most difficult of circumstances,” Darzi said in a statement.
Darzi said discussions about the pardon for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had involved the Myanmar government, Reuters, the United Nations and representatives of other governments.
He said the government, led by Nobel laureate Suu Kyi, could only consider releasing the pair after the Supreme Court had rejected their final appeal.
“I’m very grateful to the president, the state counselor (Suu Kyi) and also the cabinet, for making that happen.”
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was relieved to learn of the release, a spokesman said. The United Nations in Myanmar said it saw the release as a sign of the government’s commitment to the transition to democracy, saying that it marked a "step forward" towards improving press freedom.
"The UN stands ready to continue to support Myanmar in its complex transition process," said the statement from Yangon.
The widespread military action reported on by the Reuters journalists prompted hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee across the border to Bangladesh, leading the then UN human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, to describe the exodus as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing."
Today, around a million Rohingya refugees remain in camps in southern Bangladesh, amid ongoing UN-led efforts to repatriate them when conditions are deemed sufficiently safe for them to do so.
Reuters reporting/writing by Simon Lewis, Shoon Naing in YANGON, Poppy McPherson, Michelle Nichols in NEW YORK; Editing by Alex Richardson, Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie
Photo: Ann Wang / Reuters