Two Reuters reporters jailed for their coverage of the Myanmar military’s violence against Rohingya Muslims were released Tuesday after spending 511 days in prison, bringing a long-awaited close to one of the world’s most high-profile press freedom cases.
Burmese journalists Wa Lone, 33, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 29, smiled and waved as they were mobbed by reporters walking out of the Yangon’s infamous Insein Prison. Their release was part of a presidential pardon that saw more than 6,500 prisoners walk free.
Their case captured global attention and heaped international pressure upon the Myanmar government, led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Thousands signed an online petition, changed their social media profile pictures to an iconic image of the pair, and shared constant updates with the hashtag #FreeWaLoneKyawSoeOo. Since their arrest in December 2017, they have won numerous awards — most recently co-winning the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting — and were recognized in TIME’s 2018 Person of the Year issue as Guardians of Truth.
Wa Lone thanked those who supported them during their imprisonment. “I can’t wait to go to my newsroom,” he said before departing to be reunited with his family. At Reuters’ newsrooms across the globe, colleagues were also eager to see their return. Aurindom Mukherjee, Social Media Editor at Reuters, Tweeted that the staff at Reuters Singapore headquarters burst into applause as they watched the reporters walk out of prison on television.
“We are enormously pleased that Myanmar has released out 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,” Stephen J. Adler, Reuter’s Editor-in-Chief said in a statement.
Other journalists also chimed in. Iranian-American Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who was detained in Iran for 544 days, said the reporters face challenges ahead.
Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, who joined their legal team just over a year ago, praised Reuters editor-in-chief Steve Adler and Chief Counsel Gail Gove for standing by their colleagues.
“It is inspiring to see a news organization so committed to the protection of innocent men and the profession of journalism,” Clooney said in a statement. “It has been an honour to represent Reuters and the two journalists in this case and I hope that their release signals a renewed commitment to press freedom in Myanmar.”
While the pair’s release was met with an outpouring of joy, some pointed out that the arrest was unjust to begin with and many people remain imprisoned or awaiting trial on similarly spurious charges.
“Although Myanmar failed shamefully to redress the injustice of their trumped-up arrest and conviction on spurious evidence, we are relieved that their ordeal behind bars is over” Suzanne Nossel, Chief Executive Officer of PEN America, said in a statement.
“Young men who have now proven themselves as world-renowned journalists, they have long and important careers ahead of them carrying out the essential work of holding Myanmar’s fledgling new government accountable and keeping their country’s deserving public informed,” Nossel said.
While everyone was excited to see the journalists walk free, experts noted that poor press freedom is still a big issue in the country.
“These courageous investigative journalists should have never been arrested, much less imprisoned, in the first place and their release was long overdue. But the crisis is not over for the literally dozens of other Burmese journalists and bloggers who are still facing baseless criminal charges for their reporting about the Tatmadaw or NLD government officials,” Phil Robertson, deputy director for the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.