PEN America, a New York-based literary and human rights advocacy group, will confer its PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award on the two Reuters reporters arrested by Burmese authorities in December.
Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, were detained on 12 December after meeting with police officers over dinner on the outskirts of Yangon. The purpose of the sit-down is believed to have been related to the Reuters duo’s coverage of Rakhine State, where the news wire has been at the forefront of efforts to report on a crisis garnering worldwide attention.
Arrested allegedly in possession of sensitive government documents, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo face up to 14 years in prison under Burma’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act. Last week Reuters published an in-depth special report detailing a massacre of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State, which included the bylines of the two detained reporters.
“Ethnic violence in Myanmar has profound implications for the country’s social fabric, political future, and international stature; it is a story that cannot be buried,” said Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America, in a press release from the organisation on Tuesday.
“Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were unearthing dark truths with the rigor of professional journalists: interviewing eyewitnesses on all sides and collecting physical and photographic evidence,” she added. “Having honored imprisoned writers during the junta, we at PEN America lauded the advent of reform, hoping that the jailing of writers was a thing of the past. It is now clear we celebrated too soon.”
PEN America has given its Freedom to Write Award to four other Burmese in the past, including the well-known author Ma Thida and Nay Phone Latt, a pro-democracy activist who came to prominence as a dissident blogger and now serves as a sitting member of Parliament.
In its press release, PEN said 37 of the 42 jailed writers who have been given the award since 1987 “have been released due in part to the global attention and pressure the award generates.”
The two Reuters reporters’ fifth hearing in their “official secrets” trial was held at Yangon’s Northern District Court on Wednesday. They will be honoured with the Freedom to Write Award at the 2018 PEN America Literary Gala on 22 May.
“The prosecution of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo for the crime of exposing alleged atrocities is a jarring reminder that the fight for free expression in Myanmar remains incomplete and urgent,” said Nossel. “We are proud to honor these dauntless reporters and hope the award sounds a powerful signal that global concern for human rights in Myanmar will not let up.”
Also on Tuesday, speaking before the UN Security Council, the US ambassador to the United Nations voiced support for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.
“Journalists like the two imprisoned Reuters reporters are an indispensable source of information,” said the envoy, Nikki Haley.