VOA's Ira Mellman contributed to this report.
YANGON, MYANMAR — Two Reuters journalists jailed for their reporting on the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar walked out of prison Tuesday after more than 16 months in detention.
Their release followed a vigorous global campaign by media and human rights organizations, and backroom diplomacy.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were mobbed by media as they stepped out of Yangon's notorious Insein prison. They were freed in a presidential amnesty that included more than 6,000 prisoners.
Their December 2017 arrests made them an international cause celebre and a sign of Myanmar's deteriorating press freedoms under Nobel laureate and civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The journalists waved and smiled broadly as they walked out of the jail.
Wa Lone, 33, thanked people from "around the world" for advocating for their release and vowed he would return to work.
"I can't wait to go to my newsroom," he said. "I am a journalist and I am going to continue.
"We're really happy and excited to see our family and colleagues. I don't know what to say, we're very excited," Wa Lone said shortly after his release.
"I really want to meet my family, and I am supposed to go to the cinema with my family tonight," Kyaw Soe Oo, 29, told reporters.
Government spokesman Zaw Htay told reporters that family members had sent letters to Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint.
"Leaders took into consideration the long-term interest of [the] country," he said.
In a statement released late Tuesday, the White House welcomed the release of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, saying, "Jailed for over 500 days since December 2017 for reporting on atrocities against the Rohingya, we are delighted they will be reunited with their families.
"We hope that other jailed journalists in Burma will also be allowed their freedom," it continued. Human Rights Watch's deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson told VOA there are "well over 30 journalists who are still in prison or facing charges" in Myanmar.
Ravina Shamdasani, spokeswoman for the U.N. human rights office, welcomed the journalists' release but chastised the Myanmar government.
"It is good news that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have been released, but they should never have been arrested and convicted in the first place."
The two journalists were convicted on charges of violating the Official Secrets Act and were sentenced to seven years each.
At the time of their arrest, they had been reporting on a September 2017 massacre of 10 Rohingya Muslims in conflict-hit Rakhine state, where the Myanmar army forced some 740,000 of the stateless minority to flee over the border to Bangladesh.
The case prompted an outcry around the world and crushed what was left of Aung San Suu Kyi's legacy as a rights defender.
WATCH: Prisoners released
The real reason the two reporters were released at this time was "international pressure," Robertson told VOA via Skype. "The people at Reuters had done a very effective campaign to bring this to the the leaders of the world."
On the detention of the reporters, Robertson said, "This is all about the government and the military trying to persecute critics who dare report stories that they don't like."
"The [Myanmar] government put them all the way through their actual legal system even though quite clearly they should never should have been arrested in the first place, much less prosecuted," Robertson said. "And ultimately, you know, having kept them in prison for five hundred days, decide that they're going to cut their losses and and they've let them go now."
Reuters has said Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were imprisoned in retaliation for their expose.
The army jailed seven soldiers for the massacre in a rare response to allegations of atrocities.
Military spokesman Zaw Min Tun said it had no comment on the release, except that the case was "undertaken in line with the law."
Set up by police
Rights groups and legal experts say the prosecution's case was riddled with irregularities.
A whistleblowing police officer testified during the trial that his superior had ordered his team to trap the reporters in a sting — testimony the judge chose to ignore.
Former officer Moe Yan Naing told the Agence France-Presse news agency he was "delighted" the families were back together, and expressed interest in meeting the journalists.
Aung San Suu Kyi led her National League for Democracy party to victory in historic 2015 polls, ending decades of military-backed rule.
But the dreams of a new day for Myanmar were short-lived when the army launched a campaign against the Rohingya in Rakhine state, which U.N. investigators have said amounted to genocide.
Myanmar has denied the charges and said it was defending itself against Rohingya militants, who attacked and killed police officers in August 2017.
During their imprisonment, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were showered with awards and honors in response to their work. Last month, they and the staff of Reuters were awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for international reporting.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were also on the December 2018 cover of Time magazine as part of its Person of the Year coverage featuring journalists targeted for their reporting.
Their case became synonymous with the war against press freedom and prompted an international campaign that attracted the support of prominent rights lawyer Amal Clooney, who said Tuesday it had been an "honor to represent Reuters and the two journalists."
In a statement, Reuters Editor-in-Chief Stephen J. 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."