YANGON — With two more of its reporters winning the Pulitzer Prize this week, Myanmar now has four awardees of the prestigious journalism honor.
Esther Htusan was a part of the Associated Press team to win the Pulitzer for public service in 2016 for uncovering a human trafficking operation in Southeast Asia, becoming the first person from Myanmar to win the prize in any category. Last year, Reuters’ Soe Zeya Tun was among the agency’s photographers to win the prize for feature photography for its coverage of the mass exodus of Rohingya from Myanmar to Bangladesh.
Two Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were the latest Myanmar journalists to win when the Pulitzer Center handed out an award for international reporting to Reuters staff on Monday for their investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya men in northern Rakhine State as part of a military-led campaign that began in 2017. The pair led the investigation but they have been in jail for more than a year now after their arrest — and subsequent conviction — for exposing state secrets, which they deny.
On Tuesday, Reuters Editor-in-Chief Stephen Adler said that despite being thrilled that Wa Lone. Kyaw Soe Oo and their colleagues were recognized for their extraordinary, courageous coverage, he was also saddened.
“I remain deeply distressed…that our brave reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are still behind bars,” he said.
Their arrest and conviction highlight the fact that Myanmar journalists face great risks in doing their jobs.
Myanmar climbed 20 places in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index between 2013 and 2017 but has since slipped and is now ranked 138 out of 180 countries.
Journalists are still often prosecuted under Article 66 (d) of the Telecommunications Act, which criminalizes online defamation and hampers investigative reporting. Dozens of journalists have been subjected to criminal prosecution for their work by both the government and military. Among those charged by the military have been journalists from The Irrawaddy and The Voice. Last year, three journalists from Eleven Media were sued by the Yangon government for incitement.
According to Athan, a Yangon-based group that promotes freedom of expression, there have been 23 cases brought against the media under the Telecommunications Act and 31 journalists have been put on trial.
Shawn Crispin, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told The Irrawaddy that Myanmar’s journalists face an array of threats, from spurious defamation lawsuits to physical assault to imprisonment, all of which impede their ability to freely report the news.
He said hopes that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would usher in a new era of press freedom when her party took power in early 2016 after decades of military-imposed censorship have been dashed. If Myanmar wants to be seen internationally as a functioning democracy, Crispin added, it must stop jailing and threatening journalists and instead respect and protect the media’s role as a check on the government.
“Until that day dawns, Myanmar will be viewed from a press freedom perspective in the same dim light as it was under previous military dictatorships,” he said.