Two Burmese journalists have walked free in a presidential anmesty, a year and a half after being jailed for reporting on the Myanmar army crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in August 2017.
Wa Lone, 33, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 29 left the Insein prison, just outside the former capital Yangon, smiling and waving to reporters.
“I’m really happy and excited to see my family and my colleagues. I can’t wait to go to my newsroom,” said Lone.
The pair were sentenced to seven years in jail after they were convicted on charges of violating the official secrets act – a outdated law that harks back to British colonial times, according to Phil Robertson, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch, Asia Division
“They were charged with receiving information that was secret and that therefore the possession of that would bring them into violation of that law,” explains Robertson.
In Myanmar, it is common practice by authorities to free prisoners across the country around the time of their traditional New Year, which began on 17 April.
The journalists were part of a third wave of releases since April, which have seen more than 6,500 prisoners freed in amnesties granted by President Win Myint.
To date, the government has not said anything about their release, but Robertson says “there were a number of people working behind the scenes to get them released”.
He stresses that they should never have been arrested in the first place. Reuters has also made the same statement.
Their case went all the way to the highest courts, where a prosecution witness admitted that “he was ordered to set these people up” – and yet the conviction was still maintained, says Robertson.
“The information [in question] was handed to the journalists by police at the end of a meeting. They didn’t ask for that information. It turned out that it had actually been published elsewhere and this was part of the police set-up that the official testified to on the stand, shocking his colleagues,” he added.
Despite the thousands of releases, Robertson says at least two dozen media workers still remain in prison.
“This is just the sort of cases we see time and time again. Anytime the military or government are seeing articles that they don’t like, they’re digging around in their duffle bag of repressive laws and puling something out to hit that journalist or editor with,” he says.