Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have been released from Yangon’s Insein prison, where they were incarcerated for 511 days for breaking Myanmar’s archaic Official Secrets Act while reporting on the Rohingya crisis. Their conviction in 2017 had galvanised the international community, with world leaders and rights organisations clamouring for their release. While their liberation is reason for celebration, at a time when the press worldwide is operating under unprecedented pressure from governments and political forces, they did have to endure the entire legal process, and were released only in an annual amnesty, two among 6,520 prisoners. The unwillingness of the state to take back a case which became a symbol of the repression of the press has considerably damaged the standing of Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace laureate and the country’s first State Counsellor.
The case against the journalists is widely regarded as trumped-up. They were arrested after being called to a meeting with government officials, and support for the conviction under the colonial-era law, ironically, had come from documents on their cellphones, which were recovered by cutting-edge Israeli technology. The irony has not been lost on critics of archaic laws which are retained on the statute books of several nations because they are useful against critics and opponents, including the press. Nicholas Bequelin, head of Amnesty International in the region, has reacted: “Until these laws are repealed, journalists and activists remain under a permanent threat of detention and arrest.” In India, apart from the Official Secrets Act, the criminalisation of defamation remains a serious issue — the Congress has promised to reduce it to a civil offence if voted to office.
While fake news is a matter of urgent concern, the issue of journalists who are penalised for reporting the truth is no less pressing. An unprecedented number of journalists are behind bars worldwide simply for doing their job, which is to question power. In its 2017 annual survey, the Committee to Protect Journalists found that 262 professionals had been incarcerated for their work, a figure that is slightly higher than the previous year’s tally, which itself was a record. Recep Tayyib Erdogan’s Turkey took the cake, with China and Egypt close behind. But journalists are also working under unprecedented pressure in democracies led by demagogues, like the US. Amidst a rapidly developing global problem, the release of the two Reuter journalists offers hope.