Some years ago an anxious Wa Lone, a budding journalist from a small Burmese village, was asked to answer a question during an English lesson. He fled.
On Tuesday he looked far more relaxed, despite having weathered a far sterner test of his nerves. Flashing a broad grin and a triumphant thumb, he walked beside his fellow reporter Kyaw Soe Oo, who, like him, had just been freed from a Myanmar prison under a presidential amnesty.
Their colleagues at Reuters rejoiced. “My heart is full,” wrote Grace Lee, a journalist covering Asia for the UK-based newswire, as she tweeted a photo (see above) of the two men celebrating with their children (Wa Lone’s daughter was born while he was in prison; he has only seen her at prison visits).
“Long walk to freedom!” wrote Jorge Silva, a photographer, in buoyant all-caps.
Wa Lone, 33, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 29, were jailed for 73 weeks after their arrest in December 2017; they had been investigating killings of Rohingya Muslims — work that would later win them and their organisation a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting.
“For expertly exposing the military units and Buddhist villagers responsible for the systematic expulsion and murder of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, courageous coverage that landed its reporters in prison.”
TIME magazine, which featured them in one of its Person Of The Year 2018 covers, said their arrest was “widely viewed as retribution for their work exposing the regime’s atrocities against the Rohingya minority”.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were convicted last year; a judge determined that “confidential documents” found on them by prosectors would have been useful to “enemies of the state and terrorist organisations”. The reporters petitioned Myanmar’s Supreme Court, citing evidence of a police set-up and lack of proof of a crime, but it rejected their appeal in April.
Throughout their ordeal, support came from home and beyond (See timeline). Within days of their arrest in Yangon, the United Nations and the US both asked that they be set free. Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney joined their legal team last March. International condemnation greeted their conviction in September. Now, there is a growing chorus of joy and relief.
“These courageous investigative journalists should have never been arrested, much less imprisoned, in the first place and their release is long overdue,” said Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch.
Stephen J Adler, the editor-in-chief of Reuters, said Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had become “symbols of the importance of press freedom around the world”.
Wa Lone said he was happy and excited to see his family and colleagues.
“I can’t wait to go to my newsroom,” he said.
Inputs from Reuters