Two Pulitzer-winning Reuters journalists held in Myanmar for more than 500 days for their coverage of the crackdown on Rohingya Muslims were freed from jail Tuesday, ending a prolonged detention that has tainted Myanmar and its Nobel laureate civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were released as part of an annual amnesty that has freed thousands of prisoners since last month. An additional 6,000 people were released Tuesday.
Myanmar officials have no immediate reason for the release of the two journalists, who had exhausted all their legal options after Myanmar’s highest court rejected their appeal late last month.
Suu Kyi – winner of the Nobel Peace Prize – has also been under significant pressure from Vice President Mike Pence and others to intervene in the case and free the journalists. But she had defended their detention and said they were not jailed for their reporting but because they were convicted of breaking colonial-era state secrecy laws.
The two journalists were accused of possessing secret documents but were widely believed to have been set up in December 2017. In September they were convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison.
The journalists and their lawyers have insisted that they were merely doing their job as reporters, never had the chance to read the documents they were given before they were detained and had not been planning to share state secrets.
The pair have received multiple honors and awards for their investigation into a massacre of 10 Rohingya Muslims, the story they were working on at the time of their arrest. These include the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting, which they won in April.
Their Reuters colleagues posted video and photos of the two journalists Tuesday walking out of the gates of Yangon’s Insein prison, smiling and carrying a single bag each with their few possessions. They were mobbed by photographers and onlookers upon their exit.
“I’m really happy and excited to see my family and my colleagues,” Wa Lone said in brief comments upon his release, thanking everyone around the world who helped secure his freedom. “I can’t wait to go to my newsroom.”
The two journalists have become a symbol of Myanmar’s fading democratic hopes and promise under its Nobel laureate civilian leader. Both men grew up under Myanmar’s dark days of military rule and worked as reporters during the country’s dramatic transition to a largely civilian-led government.
It was the third such amnesty marking the traditional new year holiday that took place last month.
Their release was immediately and widely celebrated across the world. Reuters editor in chief Stephen J. Adler said in a statement that the news agency is “enormously pleased” that the two have been freed.
“Since their arrests 511 days ago, they have become symbols of the importance of press freedom around the world. We welcome their return,” he said.
In a tweet, Pence hailed the development as “Great news!”
The two journalists “were jailed for doing their job reporting on atrocities committed against the Rohingya people. Freedom of religion & freedom of the press are essential to a strong democracy!” Pence wrote.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), a nonprofit that tracks and assists political prisoners held in Myanmar, estimates that 48 political prisoners are jailed in the country. Hundreds of others have been charged and are facing trial in Myanmar and abroad.
“Everyone should be released,” lawyer Than Zaw Aung said. “There are still some prisoners that have been jailed because of the freedom of expression. My own desire is for all of them to be freed.”
The journalists’ release Tuesday was unexpected and remained uncertain until the moment they were first seen walking toward the prison gates. Their families were not there, waiting for news of their release at the Reuters office in Yangon.
Chit Su Win, Kyaw Soe Oo’s wife, said she chose not to make the trip because her hopes for his release had been raised and dashed many times.
“I would not be able to stand the situation if we came [to the prison] to welcome them, but they were not released,” she said by phone. “I couldn’t even speak for a while when [Kyaw Soe Oo] called me telling me that he was released.”
When she told their young daughter that her father had been freed, the girl started dancing, Chit Su Win said.