Two Reuters journalists who were arrested for violating Myanmar’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act were released Tuesday.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were among the thousands of prisoners pardoned by President Wyn Myint as part of an annual amnesty issued by authorities around the time of the traditional New Year, which began April 17.
Greeted by a crowd of reporters as they walked out of the gates of the notorious Insein prison in Yangon, Wa Lone vowed to continue his work, telling his colleagues “I can’t wait to go to my newsroom.”
The pair were convicted last September and sentenced to seven years in prison. They were covering the brutal military campaign in northwestern Rakhine state that drove nearly 700,000 Rohingya Muslims across the border into Bangladesh in August 2017.
They were arrested in December of that year after meeting with two police officers at a restaurant in Yangon and given a stack of documents. The pair were investigating the massacre of 10 Rohingya by police and soldiers in the village of Inn Din.
Their release comes just two weeks after Myanmar's Supreme Court rejected an appeal of their convictions. Their lawyers said the original conviction should be thrown out because the journalists were setup by police. At one point in their trial, a law enforcement official testified he planted documents on the two men.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting for their work in uncovering the massacre, which they shared with two colleagues who completed the story after their conviction.
“We are enormously pleased that Myanmar has released our courageous reporters,” Reuters Editor-in-Chief Stephen J. Adler said in a statement. “Since their arrests 511 days ago, they have become symbols of the importance of press freedom around the world. We welcome their return.”
The United Nations humanitarian coordinator in Myanmar issued a statement welcoming the journalists’ release, calling it “a step toward improving the freedom of the press and a sign of the Government’s commitment to Myanmar’s transition to democracy.”
"May their release herald a new era of press freedom in Myanmar, where reporters no longer fear reprisal merely for doing their jobs," said Shawn Crispin, Senior Southeast Asia Representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in a statement released Tuesday.
The arrests of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo sparked international outrage among free speech and human rights activists, who saw the case as Myanmar's first real test of freedom of expression since embracing democracy in 2016 after decades under repressive military rule.
A special United Nations investigative panel has accused Myanmar's military of carrying out numerous atrocities during the 2017 crackdown against the Rohingya Muslims "with genocidal intent." The U.N. panel is calling for the prosecution of its top generals, including the army's commander-in-chief, General Min Aung Hlaing, of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.