Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney has warned Myanmar’s government “the world is watching” as Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo mark one year behind bars.
Lone (pictured, left) and Soe Oo (pictured, right) were found guilty by a judge of breaching the country’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act and handed a seven-year jail sentence in September.
The pair have always denied the charges against them, maintaining that they were set up by police to stop their investigation into the massacre of ten Rohingya Muslim men in Rakhine state, Myanmar.
Reg Chua, the news agency’s executive editor for editorial operations, data and innovation, told Press Gazette the pair are “holding up pretty well” despite being in jail for something they did not do.
But he said that not being able to regularly see their young children is a major source of suffering for the pair. Wa Lone has only held his newborn daughter twice – she was born while he was in jail.
Soe Oo has a three-year-old daughter who he has only occasionally been able to see for the past year, and whom he fears will forget him if he stays incarcerated, his wife told Time magazine.
Their wives are understood to visit them at least once a week, but prison rules require they use a private room for visits with their children, which is not always available, the Guardian has reported.
Reuters has appealed the pair’s conviction, citing evidence of a police set-up and lack of proof of a crime taking place, with the case set to be heard on Christmas Eve this year.
“On the merits of the case and certainly how we have seen the trial conducted, one would expect and believe that any reasonable appeals court would overturn the conviction and let them go,” Chua said.
‘It’s important for the world to say they care’
A police witness told Lone and Soe Oo’s trial that police arranged to give them “secret documents” at a restaurant in order to “entrap” them. He was later imprisoned for violating Myanmar’s Police Disciplinary Act.
Chua added: “I think it’s important for the world to continue to say that they care about Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.
“That they show that they believe in them, they show that they believe in the cause of press freedom more generally and that they essentially underscore their understanding that this is not a just imprisonment, that they are in jail for something that they did not do.
“It isn’t simply ‘let them go because they’re good people’ – which they are – but ‘let them go because they should not be in jail’,” he said.
Clooney, wife of Hollywood star George, who represents the pair has already asked Myanmar’s government to consider giving Lone and Soe Oo a presidential pardon, a call echoed by the United Nations.
In a statement released today, she said: “It has been a year since my clients, two courageous journalists, were falsely imprisoned for a crime they did not commit.
“For 12 long months, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have been torn apart from their wives and baby daughters simply because they reported the news.
“Earlier this week, Myanmar’s President, U Win Myint, said that ‘when there is no rule of law, democracy and human rights are lost’. I could not agree more.
“These journalists exposed mass murder and should be applauded for their public service, not imprisoned for it. Their future is in the government’s hands, and the world is watching.”
‘Guardians’ of the truth
Lone and Soe Oo were yesterday named as Time magazine’s joint Person of the Year as part of the “guardians” of the truth.
They shared the honour with murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, persecuted Filipino editor Maria Ressa and the Capital Gazette newspaper in Maryland where five staff members were shot and killed in June.
The pair won the Foreign Affairs Journalism prize and the Global Investigation of the Year, which were collected on their behalf by Janet McBride, international editor for enterprise and investigations at Reuters.
The judges said: “We are all in debt to reporters who are willing to put their liberty on the line in order to tell the world things the world needs to know about.
“They investigated atrocities against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims in the face of very significant opposition from the government, a government which up until that then we had thought was run by a saint.
“Their work had a major impact on international opinion and was genuine world-changing journalism.”
In the past year Lone and Soe Oo have been awarded at least seven other major awards, including a Foreign Press Association Media Award, PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write award, and the James Foley Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism.
‘They hear of the awards… it keeps their spirits high’
Chua told Press Gazette the awards were “great news” both to keep the reporters’ plight in the public eye and to keep their spirits high.
“One [reason] is the external recognition and understanding and the continued light that it shines on their unjust imprisonment.
“And I think that’s very good from the point of view of the world showing that it cares and that they care about press freedom more broadly and they care about the two of them specifically,” Chua said.
“I think it’s also great for them personally, at least this is my understanding as we go in and talk to them, that they hear of the awards that they are receiving because it keeps their spirits high.
“It reminds them that what they did really mattered to their fellow Burmese citizens but really it also shows that the world is with them and I think that that bolsters them through what has been obviously a really long and difficult incarceration.”
Chua added it was “gratifying” that Time had chosen to use its Person of the Year award to recognise journalists “for the work that they are doing and the risks that they take”.
The magazine interviewed and photographed Lone and Soe Oo’s wives for one of its four Person of the Year covers, keeping it under wraps even from Reuters until yesterday’s reveal.
Speaking of the prison conditions experienced by the reporters, Chua said: “I think they’re doing okay, as well as you can expect given they are in jail for something they didn’t do.
“They were mistreated, they were harshly interrogated when they were first arrested, but I think since then their conditions have improved. They hold up pretty well.
“Wa Lone has written a book while he’s been in prison, a children’s book celebrating journalists, which I think is a fantastic thing, and I gather they’ve also been teaching English to the other inmates.
“So they’re keeping occupied and they’re giving themselves a sense of mission, which I think is really important.
“But of course the flipside is that Kyaw Soe Oo has a daughter who’s turned three now that he hasn’t really had time with except at the weekly hearings early on and since their sentencing I’m not sure how much time they’ve had together.
“Wa Lone has, I think, only really seen his newborn child so many times since she’s been born, so they’ve both suffered in many ways.”
To mark the anniversary of their incarceration today, a rally has been held in Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, and journalists from around the world – including many Reuters bureaux and BBC News in London – have shared photos of themselves doing a double thumbs up of support after it became Lone’s trademark symbol of resilience to the press outside court.
— David Crundwell (@Crundwell) December 12, 2018
— BBC News Press Team (@BBCNewsPR) December 12, 2018
In a statement released today, Reuters editor-in-chief Stephen Adler said: “A year ago, Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested in a set-up by police, intended to interfere with their reporting on a massacre in Myanmar.
“The fact that they remain in prison for a crime they did not commit calls into question Myanmar’s commitment to democracy, freedom of expression and rule of law.
“Every day they continue to be behind bars is a missed opportunity for Myanmar to stand up for justice.
“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.”
Pictures: Reuters/Ann Wang