The prison ordeal of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo is thankfully over, but their biggest challenges may lie ahead.
The two local reporters for Reuters contributed incredibly detailed investigative reporting that uncovered a massacre of Rohingya Muslims in a rural province of Myanmar in September 2017. The journalists obtained photos of the victims shortly before their executions as well as evidence from the mass grave where they were buried. The information they revealed was so shocking that authorities considered it a threat to the country's national security. Police arrested the two reporters after planting documents on them.
Last month the two men received the Pulitzer Prize for their work, an award richly deserved. Their release Tuesday came after an awareness-raising campaign with high-profile supporters, much like the one The Washington Post waged when I was unjustly imprisoned in Iran. The authorities released the two men as part of a nationwide amnesty.
“Since taking on this case over a year ago, I have witnessed incredible determination by Reuters ... in their pursuit of justice for their brave reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo,” said Amal Clooney, the human rights lawyer who represented Reuters in its legal battle to win the reporters’ freedom, moments after the two were released. “It is inspiring to see a news organization so committed to the protection of innocent men and the profession of journalism.”
Not all journalists can count on such unwavering support.
The two reporters, who were arrested in December 2017, spent 511 days in prison for doing their job, and doing it exceedingly well. Now they can return home to their families.
Those reunions will be joyous occasions, no doubt. But Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo face an uncertain future. The reality is that it will be very difficult for them to return to work as reporters in their homeland. Myanmar is, after all, a police state and although they are now free, they will continue to be marked men, and will probably have to leave.
Sadly, countless journalists around the world are suffering similar fates — in some cases, far worse — and in the end it’s the public that loses, since those missing voices are rarely replaced with others that are equally committed to telling the difficult truths of illiberal societies. Such people are, after all, relatively rare.
We see this phenomenon around the world, as local journalists are increasingly taking on the job of bringing us the news from countries whose governments are wary of allowing foreign correspondents to report from within their closed borders.
I experienced significant difficulties reporting from Iran even before my imprisonment, of course. These days, Turkey, Egypt, India and Mexico are just a few of the countries where practicing journalism has become so hazardous that few souls are willing to take on the risks of doing this essential work.
Wa Lone, smiling broadly as he left jail, made his intentions clear. "I can't wait to go to my newsroom," he said.
I hope he gets his wish. The world will be a better place if these two heroes are allowed to continue their important work in Myanmar. But it's unlikely they'll have the chance.
Throughout the journalists' imprisonment, I've spoken with Myanmar activists and some of the men's colleagues. By all accounts they're a rare breed, absolutely committed to giving a full and accurate portrait of the unjust treatment of the Rohingya in their country.
Neither man is a member of the ethnic minority. They reported on the atrocities because they considered it part of their job.
After the report about the massacre was released in February 2018, I spoke to Stephen Adler, editor in chief of Reuters. I wanted to know about the decision to publish although Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were already behind bars.
“We thought it was really important to publish for three reasons. We felt the world needed to see this story. Our reporters in prison were fully supportive of the decision. And this is what we do,” Adler told me. “Journalism is increasingly risky work, and it is part of our broader belief to publish important news. We thought it was time to go with it.”
Jason Rezaian is a writer for Global Opinions. He served as The Washington Post’s correspondent in Tehran from 2012 to 2016. He spent 544 days unjustly imprisoned by Iranian authorities until his release in January 2016.