Opinion: Press freedom eludes Myanmar despite journalists' release

Today is a good day for Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soo Oo, as they were allowed to leave the notorious Insein prison in Myanmar. Both Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists had been kept in custody for more than 500 days. In September 2018, they were sentenced to seven years in prison for illegally procuring state secrets while researching the massacre of 10 Rohingyas. They repeatedly asserted their innocence.

Unfair trial

During the trial, a member of Myanmar's security forces admitted that the journalists had fallen into a trap. The military also confessed to the massacre, and later the soldiers involved in it were sentenced to prison. However, all that made little impression on the judges and Wa Lone and Kyaw Soo Oo were pronounced guilty.

The Myanmar government remained firm in the face of massive international pressure and campaigns by human rights organizations for the release of these journalists. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi refused any kind of engagement, indicating that the judiciary was independent. Last month, the highest court of the country rejected an appeal by the two journalists.

Read more: Myanmar: EU, UK call for presidential action after Reuters journalists' appeals rejected

Both journalists, along with 6,520 other prisoners, have now been pardoned by President Win Myint. Although it is a joyous occasion for the two journalists, their case is an exmaple of the sorry state of press freedom in Myanmar.

Pardoning prisoners is an annual ritual in the Southeast Asian country. It is, however, just a gesture. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soo Oo remain "criminals" under Myanmar's legal system. The state has only "mercifully" set them free.

Threats to journalists

Journalists continue to face threats and pressure in Myanmar. The country's authorities want to convey to independent journalists that anyone who interferes in security affairs could face prison.

Under these circumstances, a free press, which could significantly contribute to Myanmar's development, cannot thrive. Only a few journalists, like Wa Lone and Kyaw Soo Oo, show the courage and determination to raise their voices despite the risk to their lives.

After his release from prison, Wa Lone said, "I can't wait to go to my newsroom." He certainly believes in press freedom. But the government in Myanmar does not.

Read more: Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo honored with the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting