Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, two Reuters reporters who had been sentenced to seven years imprisonment for violating the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, were freed by pardon today (May 7) after spending more than 500 days behind bars.

Their prolonged detention on what rights advocates and journalist groups widely viewed as trumped-up charges has been a dark mark on Myanmar’s transition to a form of quasi-democracy after decades of repressive direct military rule.

But Myanmar’s media is still far from free and the country’s transition to democracy still far from complete with their pardons.

The two reporters were among thousands of other prisoners who were granted amnesty by president Win Myint after Myanmar New Year, which falls in mid-April.

But Wa Lone’s and Kyaw Soe Oo’s case was different from all the others. They were arrested in December 2017 while investigating the killing by security forces of 10 Muslim Rohingya men and boys, reporting that won them a Pulitzer Prize in April this year.

Journalist Wa Lone speaks to reporters as he is escorted from a courthouse in Yangon on July 9. He and colleague Kyaw Soe Oo were sentenced to seven years in jail after their conviction. Photo: AFP / Myo Kyaw Soe
Journalist Wa Lone speaks to reporters as he is escorted from a courthouse in Yangon on July 9, 2018. Photo: AFP/Myo Kyaw Soe

It was one of many such accolades the two intrepid reporters have received for their reporting on the conflict in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, which has resulted in the flight of more than 700,000 Rohingya to neighboring Bangladesh since August 2017.

Their convictions in September last year sparked a global outcry, with prominent personalities as diverse as Pope Francis and novelist Stephen King calling for their release.

It was clear to most that the supposedly secret documents found in their possession had been planted on them by police. Indeed, even a policeman involved in the case testified the journalists were victims of a set-up.

That officer, Moe Yan Naing, was sentenced to a year in jail for “violating police discipline” and freed in January this year.

Their release came as a surprise, as Myanmar’s Supreme Court had in April rejected their final appeal, closing the last potential legal remedy for their detentions.

It’s unclear if President Win Myint, widely seen as a figurehead for State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, coordinated with the autonomous military in granting their releases.

Myanmar State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi leaves after paying her respects to her late father during a ceremony to mark the 71th anniversary of Martyrs' Day in Yangon on July 19, 2018.Photo: AFP/Ye Aung Thu
State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi on the 71st anniversary of Martyrs’ Day, Yangon, July 19, 2018. Photo: AFP/Ye Aung Thu

Suu Kyi had stood firm behind the legal rationale behind their imprisonment, while the military has continued to ramp up legal threats against other media groups that report critically from conflict zones.

The two reporters were received by Lord Ara Darzi, a British surgeon who had served as a member of an advisory group involved in trying to resolve the conflict in Rakhine State, and a representative from Reuters when they walked out of Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison.

Wa Lone, 33, previously worked as a reporter for the English-language Myanmar Times before joining Reuters in 2016. Kyaw Soe Oo, 29, a Buddhist native of Rakhine state, was involved in setting up a local news website known as the Root Investigative Agency, and was on assignment for Reuters when he and Wa Lone were arrested.

While their freedom has been hailed as a hard-fought victory for press freedom, it also comes amid a widening crackdown on local media. The Home Ministry’s Special Branch, which is controlled by the powerful military, this week opened a lawsuit against Aung Min Oo, chief editor of the Development Media Group (DMG), which is based in Rakhine state.

He could be formally charged under another colonial-era law, the 1908 Unlawful Associations Act, apparently over DMG’s reporting on the activities of the Arakan Army (AA), a local rebel army which draws support from the state’s Buddhist majority.

Myanmar is reconnecting with the outside world after decades of military rule. Photo: AFP/Khin Maung Win
Myanmar soldiers march in formation. Photo: AFP/Khin Maung Win

DMG is the third media organization sued by the military-controlled Home Ministry so far this year. It also recently sued The Irrawaddy, an online publication, and the US Congress-funded Radio Free Asia, for defamation over their coverage of clashes between AA and the Myanmar military where civilians were reportedly killed.

Following decades state-controlled media dominance and strict military-imposed censorship, Myanmar allowed for more press freedom under previous President Thein Sein, a former general and leading member of an earlier ruling junta.

But while outright censorship was lifted, the military and other powerful interests including big business have used old colonial-era legislation as well as libel and defamation laws to silence critical voices.

The fact that Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, which had fought for democracy since its inception as a party in 1988, has done little to improve the situation for journalists since it’s 2015 election win and installment into power in 2016.

On the contrary, libel and defamation cases have increased and Myanmar ranked number 138 out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders 2019 Press Freedom Index.

Reporters protest as they call on Myanmar government and military authorities to release reporters who were arrested in Yangon, Myanmar June 30, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun
Reporters protest as they call on the Myanmar government and military authorities to release reporters who were arrested in Yangon, Myanmar, June 30, 2017. Photo: Facebook

Still, today’s release of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo has been hailed as a positive sign in an increasingly dark media environment.

Reuters editor-in-chief Stephen Adler said after their release: “We are enormously pleased that Myanmar has released our courageous reporters … since their arrest 511 days ago, they have become symbols of the importance of press freedom around the world.”

Swamped by well-wishers as they walked to freedom, Wa Lone gave his now iconic thumbs up, saying: “I’m really happy and excited to see my family and colleagues, I can’t wait to go to my newsroom.”