Two Reuters journalists who were jailed in Myanmar for reporting on the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims have been released as part of a mass presidential amnesty.
Wa Lone, 33, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 29, were arrested in December 2017 and “accused of breaking the colonial-era Official Secrets Act”, The Guardian reports.
The charges relate to an article published in February last year in which the two reporters, both Myanmar nationals, revealed the massacre of ten unarmed Rohingya Muslim men in a Burmese village.
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Their arrest and subsequent imprisonment “raised questions about Myanmar’s progress toward democracy” and “sparked an outcry from diplomats and human rights advocates”, says Al Jazeera says.
The pair spent more than 500 days in jail despite repeat calls from the international community for their release. However, in a shock move on Tuesday, they were granted their freedom as part of an amnesty of 6,520 prisoners by Myanmar’s President Win Myint.
Speaking moments after his release, Wa Lone said: “I’m really happy and excited to see my family and my colleagues. I can’t wait to go to my newsroom. I am a journalist and I am going to continue to be.”
Welcoming the news, Reuters editor-in-chief Stephen Adler said: “We are enormously pleased that Myanmar has released our courageous reporters. Since their arrests 511 days ago, they have become symbols of the importance of press freedom around the world. We welcome their return.”
So what happened to Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo?
What were they reporting on?
The story of their arrest is intertwined with the ongoing ethnic cleansing of the minorty Rohingya Muslim community in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.
The Islamic community in the western region have been subject to persecution by the country’s majority Buddhist government for decades, but what was once a conflict defined by sporadic flurries of violence has developed into a full-blown genocide.
In August 2017, Rohingya militants launched deadly attacks on more than 30 police posts across the state, reports the BBC. Although this violence was almost solely directed at the authorities, Myanmar’s powerful military - over which the government has limited control - responded by burning down Rohingya villages and attacking, raping, torturing and killing civilians.
The Washington Post reports that the government of Myanmar has been accused repeatedly of attempting to “cover up” the killings, or attempting to justify them as a legitimate security measure. In August 2018, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights declared that the Myanmar military should face charges of “crimes against humanity”, including acts of “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide”.
In October 2017, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, both of whom worked at Reuters’ office in former capital Yangon, began working on a story about the conflict that saw them travel to Rakhine.
Why were they arrested?
According to Reuters, the pair were tipped off by a local driver about the massacre of ten unarmed Rohingya Muslim men in the small village of Inn Din during a military operation in the state. The pair went to the village, where Wa Lone spoke to a local man who handed over what the news agency calls “explosive material” - photographs of the ten men before and after they were killed.
“One picture showed the men’s bodies, hacked and shot to death, in a shallow grave,” the agency says. “Another, taken while they were still alive, showed them on their knees.”
In the background of one of the photos was a member of Myanmar’s police Battalion 8, whom Wa Lone contacted in order to identify the potential killers.
Reuters claims it was the first time that soldiers had been implicated with photographic evidence, and that testimony from villagers backed up the journalists’ claims.
Wa Lone claims that during a meeting with members of the battalion at a Yangon restaurant, falsified documents were planted on both him and Kyaw Soe Oo. They were then arrested for “obtaining confidential documents relating to Rakhine” in violation of the Official Secrets Act.
A police witness testified during the trial that the restaurant meeting was a set-up to entrap the journalists.
The BBC reports that a subsequent investigation into the massacre by the military described the ten men killed in Inn Din as “Bengali terrorists”, and claimed they were executed because they could not be transported. But the two journalists found no evidence of any connection with terrorism, with “several witnesses saying the men had been picked out of a crowd”, the broadcaster adds.
The two journalists were detained by police without sentencing until September 2018, when a judge gave them each seven years in prison.
Why were they freed?
In the year following the convictions, the government of Myanmar was condemned by rights groups, Western governments and press associations, CBS News reports.
Meanwhile, the two journalists were honoured with a number of awards for their work. In April, along with their Reuters colleagues, the pair were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were also among the journalists named in Time magazine’s Person of the Year 2018 list.
The two were finally freed this week when President Win Myint issued a blanket pardon for 6,520 prisoners.
The move represents a major U-turn by Myanmar’s authorities. Only last month, an appeal to the Supreme Court to overturn the conviction was rejected - a ruling that the Committee to Protect Journalists said would be “an enduring stain on Myanmar’s reputation”.
The government also failed to pardon the pair in the annual New Year amnesty in January, which saw 9,000 prisoners released.
As The Guardian notes, “it is unclear why the decision to pardon the pair was made now”.
The overturning of their conviction is all the more surprising given comments made by Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi in September last year. Defending their jailing, Suu Kyi said that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had broken the law and that their conviction had “nothing to do with freedom of expression at all” - claims that Human Rights Watch said showed she had “got it all wrong”.
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