YANGON—Freedom of expression activists and civil society organizations on Wednesday called for the unconditional release of two local Reuters journalists who were arrested by the government one year ago Wednesday.
Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested on Dec. 12, 2017 for possession of security-related classified documents. The pair were eventually sentenced to seven years in prison for breaching the Official State Secrets Act. At the time of their arrests, they were investigating a massacre of Rohingya in northern Rakhine State. Despite the testimony of a police witness that the journalists were arrested as punishment for their reporting of the mass killing, the court found them guilty.
The sentence prompted an international outcry and was widely condemned as evidence that press freedom remains under threat in Myanmar despite the fact that it is now ruled by a democratically elected government led by a Nobel Peace laureate, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
This week, Time magazine included the duo among the slain and imprisoned journalists it collectively named its “Person of the Year” for 2018. Among the other journalists named were murdered Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi; the staff of the Capital Gazette newspaper in the U.S. state of Maryland, five of whom were shot dead in June; and Maria Ressa, the founder of Rappler, a Philippine news start-up under attack by that country’s authoritarian president.
On Wednesday, Reuters editor-in-chief Stephen J. Adler said in a statement that his two journalists were arrested in a set-up by police that was intended to interfere with their reporting on the massacre. He also questioned Myanmar’s commitment to democracy, freedom of expression and rule of law, as the pair remain in prison for a crime they did not commit.
“The people of Myanmar deserve the freedoms and democracy they have long been promised, and Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo deserve to be returned to their families and colleagues immediately,” he said.
To mark the anniversary of their arrests, more than a dozen activists gathered in downtown Yangon on Wednesday afternoon to hold a candlelight vigil and pray for the release of the journalists. Participants, including journalists covering the event, wore white “Free Wa Lone & Kyaw Soe Oo” T-shirts emblazoned with portrait sketches of the two journalists. Some held printouts of a Time cover featuring the jailed reporters’ wives holding pictures of them.
Maung Saung Kha, the founder of freedom of expression advocacy group Athan, told the audience that both journalists were unjustly punished and called for their unconditional release. He urged that they be released by the court, and not through a presidential pardon.
“If they are released by the court [as opposed to receiving a pardon], their innocence will be affirmed,” he said.
Peace activist Ko Moe Thway called the case a “national disgrace” and condemned the government for its failure to release the reporters.
Lawyers for Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo submitted appeals on their behalf last month. The Yangon High Court agreed to accept the appeals and a hearing is scheduled for Dec. 24.