YANGON – Media freedom advocates praised the surprise release of Reuters reporters in Myanmar but stressed the pair should never have been jailed in the first place and called for sweeping reforms of paralyzing press laws.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters walked free from Yangon’s Insein prison Tuesday after more than 500 days behind bars as part of a large presidential amnesty following a global campaign calling for their release.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were sentenced to seven years in prison under the draconian Official Secrets Act last year after probing a massacre of 10 Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state.
The killings occurred in the conflict-wracked region of Myanmar that has been largely off-limits to journalists since an army crackdown forced some 740,000 members of the stateless Rohingya minority to flee to Bangladesh.
But as the world cheered the sudden release Tuesday, media watchdogs cautioned against celebrating the move as a new chapter for Myanmar’s tainted press freedom record.
Nicholas Bequelin of Amnesty International called the case against the Reuters reporters “a travesty of justice from start to finish.”
He said there were still “a range of repressive laws used to detain journalists, activists and any perceived critic” in place.
“Until these laws are repealed, journalists and activists remain under a permanent threat of detention and arrest.”
The United Nations on Tuesday echoed Amnesty’s fears after welcoming the pair’s release.
“The situation for freedom of expression (in Myanmar) is dire,” U.N. human rights office spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said in Geneva.
She added that “no positive progress has been observed” since the rights office issued a set of recommendations last year aimed at improving free speech in Myanmar.
Myanmar is ranked 138 out of 180 countries for press freedom by Reporters Without Borders, and critics say it employs colonial-era legislation to target journalists and activists.
That includes a roster of legislation such as the State Secrets Act and laws on unlawful association and incitement.
A telecommunications law passed in 2013 has also been used to target reporters and government critics.
There are currently almost 130 prisoners behind bars in Myanmar either convicted or awaiting trial for politically motivated reasons, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Yangon.
The Reuters saga is not the first time Myanmar has courted unwanted attention for press freedom issues.
On June 2017 three journalists from two independent news outlets — the Irrawaddy and Democratic Voice of Burma — were arrested by the military at a checkpoint after reporting from an ethnic armed group-controlled area.
They were charged with unlawful association and held for 10 weeks before the military dropped the case.
Another journalist Swe Win faces an ongoing case of online defamation that has dragged on for almost two years and which requires him to make frequent trips to another city hours away to attend hearings.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s release does little to change Myanmar’s “suffocating media environment,” said Matthew Bugher of Article 19, a freedom of expression organization.
“If the government was serious about media freedom, it could start by reforming the repressive colonial-era law that was used to charge the two men, as well as a whole host of other laws that stifle independent journalism and free speech,” he added.
Bugher said the pair’s release was a “face-saving response to persistent international pressure and bad publicity.”
Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, once considered a democracy icon, faced intense scrutiny for not intervening to secure the reporter’s freedom.
Her party swept to power in 2015 elections, the first polls in decades, after spending a combined 15 years under house arrest during the military regime.
She is currently in an uneasy power-sharing agreement with Myanmar generals, and she has been stripped of several honors internationally over her failure to speak up for the Rohingya.
Suu Kyi has also refused to lend her voice in defence of the Reuters pair despite evidence revealed in court that they had been set up in a sting.
A government spokesman said Tuesday that the reporters were released for the “long-term interest” of the country.
Reuters lawyer U Khin Maung Zaw thanked President Win Myint on Tuesday after his clients were freed and called for more protections for the country’s journalists.
“We really need an effective law that protects the journalists from going to prison when doing their job,” he said.