The Media Today

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are free

May 7, 2019

This morning, in Myanmar, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, two Reuters reporters jailed because of their journalism, walked out of a prison in Yangon after 511 days inside. Reporters and photographers formed a scrum around the pair. Wa Lone thanked people—both inside the prison and around the world—who had wished for their release. “I’m really happy and excited to see my family and my colleagues,” Wa Lone said. Shortly afterward, both he and Kyaw Soe Oo were reunited with their partners and young children. Reuters captured the moment on video.

Two weeks ago, none of this seemed very likely. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo—who had been reporting on state complicity in the massacre of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state—were arrested in December 2017 and charged with violating the Official Secrets Act, for possessing documents that a police officer had just handed to them. During their trial, the reporters said they hadn’t had time to read the documents before their arrest; a prosecution witness, meanwhile, conceded the documents weren’t “secret” at all. Nonetheless, in September, a court convicted Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo and sentenced them to seven years in prison. Their first appeal was rejected in January. On April 23, Myanmar’s Supreme Court also turned them down. The verdict appeared decisive, but the reporters’ families, and Reuters’s legal team, made clear they would not be giving up. Today, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were freed, alongside 6,518 other prisoners, after Win Myint, Myanmar’s president, ordered a mass amnesty—the latest in a wave of pardons that has become customary during Myanmar’s New Year period.

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Reuters deserves enormous credit for its tireless advocacy on behalf of its reporters. “We are enormously pleased that Myanmar has released our courageous reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo,” Stephen J. Adler, Reuters editor in chief, said. (Adler chairs CJR’s Board of Overseers.) “Since their arrests 511 days ago, they have become symbols of the importance of press freedom around the world. We welcome their return.” Ara Darzi, a British surgeon who also worked to secure the journalists’ release, said Reuters had been involved in discussions around the presidential pardon, alongside representatives of other governments and the United Nations. Earlier today, the UN described the pardon as a sign that Myanmar’s government is committed to continuing the country’s flagging transition to democracy.

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As Richard Horsey, a political analyst based in Myanmar, told Australia’s ABC, the pardon is a “good-news data point on press freedom” in the country; the official “mood music,” he said, had suggested it was not likely to be granted. Nonetheless, “there are many other worrying indications about press freedom in Myanmar,” Horsey says. “The situation is much, much better than it was 10 years ago, but from a high-water mark there are signs that press freedoms are being eroded.” According to Human Rights Watch, at least 43 journalists have been arrested in Myanmar since a pro-democracy party entered government in 2016. Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director, tweeted earlier that “literally dozens” of them still face baseless criminal charges.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo should never have required a “pardon” because they never did anything wrong. We should keep their disgraceful treatment front of mind, and take it as fresh impetus to shine a light on Myanmar’s recent authoritarian maneuvers; the deeply disappointing conduct of Aung San Suu Kyi, the previously legendary pro-democracy campaigner, in facilitating them; and the continued plight of the country’s persecuted Rohingya minority.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, along with colleagues Simon Lewis and Antoni Slodkowski, were first to report admissions of culpability from security-service insiders over their treatment of the Rohingya—work for which they were recently awarded a Pulitzer Prize. It is a great thing for journalism that the two reporters can now return to the beat. “I can’t wait to go to my newsroom now,” Wa Lone told assembled media outside the prison today. “I am a journalist. I am going to continue.”

Below, more on Myanmar and press freedom:

  • “The world must not turn away”: Last month, three senior UN officials visited a refugee camp in Bangladesh that’s home to more than 630,000 displaced Rohingya. With monsoon season approaching, the officials appealed to the world to remember the Rohingya. Writing in Foreign Policy, however, Azeem Ibrahim, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy in Washington, accused the UN of trying to wash its hands of the refugees by supporting Bangladesh’s plans to resettle some of them on a “doomed island.” Meanwhile, in Myanmar, The Guardian’s Francesca Morano visited the camps where the government is holding members of the Rohingya. Authorities have pledged to close the camps, but Morano reports that the Rohingya will not be allowed to go home.
  • Picking sides: In September, shortly after Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were convicted, Jacob Goldberg reported for CJR on Myanmar journalists’ efforts to protect themselves against similar retribution. Other reporters in the country, however, took the government’s side over that of the Rohingya. Last March, Joshua Carroll tracked that phenomenon for CJR.
  • Also going free: Some rare good journalism news from Turkey, too. Yesterday, a court overturned a prison sentence handed to Pelin Ünker, whose reporting on ICIJ’s Paradise Papers investigation led to a defamation conviction. (The court did uphold a fine, however.) Turkey remains the world’s foremost jailer of journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists has a full database of imprisoned reporters here.

Other notable stories:

  • As predicted over the weekend, big programming changes are afoot at CBS. Anthony Mason and Tony Dokoupil are headed to CBS This Morning to join Gayle King, whose current co-hosts, John Dickerson and Norah O’Donnell, are off to 60 Minutes and CBS Evening News, respectively. O’Donnell—only the third woman to be named solo anchor of a network evening news broadcast—will be moving the Evening News from New York to Washington and will replace current host Jeff Glor, who is weighing an offer to stay at the network in a new role. Announcing the changes on-air yesterday, King went “off script” to rebut rumors that she pushed O’Donnell out of CBS This Morning: “I have no beef with you, you have no beef with me,” she said. Addressing the newsroom, meanwhile, Susan Zirinsky, president of CBS News, pitched the shake-up as a fresh start for a network rocked, in recent months, by sexual-misconduct scandals and declining ratings.
  • Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, told Congressional Democrats yesterday that he will not release President Trump’s tax returns, as they had requested. Mnuchin said the request “lacks a legitimate legislative purpose.” Democrats are likely to challenge the decision in court. The House Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, will vote tomorrow to hold William Barr, the attorney general, in contempt of Congress following his refusals to hand over the full, unredacted version of the Mueller report.
  • For CJR, Lyz Lenz checks in on the presidential election at the NewsGuild-CWA, a union representing more than 20,000 journalists. Jon Schleuss, an LA Times reporter, is challenging Bernie Lunzer, the 11-year incumbent, amid claims, from some quarters, that the current leadership has overseen a disjointed approach to recent unionization efforts. “The NewsGuild’s mission is to improve wages and working conditions, and to advocate for transparency in journalism and the news industry’s business practices,” Lenz writes. “Concerned members feel the current leadership hasn’t met either commitment.”
  • Amazon could pay major US publishers to grow their presence overseas, a move the e-commerce giant hopes would drive new customers to its own site through “affiliate links.” According to Peter Kafka of Recode (which is now part of Vox), Amazon, which already pays web publishers for sales referrals, is talking to media companies with strong existing e-commerce units—including the Times and BuzzFeed—about shopping sites in new markets, and may be willing to underwrite such efforts.
  • The Democratic National Committee has capped participation in the party’s first televised primary debates, which will air in June and July, at 20 candidates—lower than the number of candidates who have now declared a presidential bid. To qualify, candidates will need to post 1 percent support in three recognized polls; 65,000 individual donors; or, perhaps, both. The centrality of the debates is upending traditional early campaign strategies—less high-profile candidates, in particular, are prioritizing digital ads and “viral moments” over infrastructure in early-voting states, Politico’s Elena Schneider reports.
  • Joe Biden has dominated cable since he declared his run for the White House two weeks ago. In the first full week of his campaign, Biden was mentioned in about as many clips on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News as all of his Democratic primary rivals combined, and scored four times as many mentions as Bernie Sanders, in second place. FiveThirtyEight’s Dhrumil Mehta has more.
  • In the UK, Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, gave birth to her first child yesterday. CJR’s Amanda Darrach writes that the birth’s “very public” aftermath—including a media audience with a beaming Prince Harry—was unexpected, given the couple’s previous reticence in granting media access.
  • And Stan Collender, a finance expert and USA Today contributor who was known as “The Budget Guy,” died last week. He was 68. Collender “had been battling Merkel Cell cancer and participating in clinical trials for several years,” USA Today’s Jill Lawrence writes. “In a 2017 column for USA Today, he made the case for more trials and urged patients to set aside their apprehensions and participate whenever they had a chance.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.