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Myanmar Releases Two Reuters Reporters Jailed For Rohingya Crackdown Coverage

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

After more than 500 days in detention, two Reuters journalists were released from a Myanmar prison today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WA LONE: I'm really happy and excited to see my family and my colleagues. And I can't wait to go to my newsroom.

CHANG: Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested in December 2017. They were accused of violating what's called the Official Secrets Act. The journalists had been covering the state-sponsored massacre of the Rohingya Muslims, and it was work that eventually earned them the Pulitzer Prize.

To talk more about what this means for press freedom in Myanmar, we're joined now by Linda Lakhdhir. She's a legal adviser at Human Rights Watch who has studied this topic extensively. She joins me now from London. Welcome.

LINDA LAKHDHIR: Good to be here.

CHANG: So the United Nations today called this release, quote, "a step toward improving the freedom of the press and a sign of the government's commitment to Myanmar's transition to democracy." Do you agree with that assessment?

LAKHDHIR: No, not at all. I think that this release, while obviously much to be welcomed, should not blind the international community to the fact that there is still ongoing repression of the media in Myanmar. And I don't think the release of these two journalists is an indication that that's changing anytime soon.

CHANG: So let's just step back. I mean, how did the situation get so bad for journalists in Myanmar in the first place?

LAKHDHIR: You know, it's not at all what we would have expected. When the NLD took power...

CHANG: The National League for Democracy, the ruling party in Myanmar.

LAKHDHIR: That's correct - the political party headed by Aung San Suu Kyi. And there was this real hope that there would be freedom of speech and freedom of the press in Myanmar and that they would get rid of these laws that have been used to arrest journalists and activists under previous administrations. And that simply hasn't happened.

I mean, what's happened instead is in part because of what's going on in Rakhine state, in part because the media tried to report on military abuses, tried to be active in terms of reporting on things like corruption in government. All of those sorts of things have been used as a basis on which to arrest journalists rather than laud them for doing good work.

CHANG: How many journalists remain jailed in Myanmar right now?

LAKHDHIR: We don't know how many journalists are currently in jail. We do know that at least 47 journalists have been prosecuted since this government took power in 2016. We also know that just two days before the Reuters journalists were released, additional journalists were being called in for questioning.

CHANG: Well, what are the lessons that we should take away from this story today? I mean, does it seem like international pressure on the government worked?

LAKHDHIR: Definitely, I think international pressure played a role in the release of these two journalists. But for concerted pressure by journalists, by human rights organizations, I think it's highly likely that they would still be in prison.

CHANG: What about local journalists who can't attract the kind of international outcry as these two journalists did? I mean, what are they supposed to do?

LAKHDHIR: They are - many of them - really afraid. I mean, I had a journalist tell me back in late January that he was literally sitting on stories of corruption that he was afraid to publish because he thought he would be arrested.

CHANG: Really?

LAKHDHIR: And those that are arrested, most of them are for working for local papers, regional papers. And those cases don't get attention. And the consequence of that, unfortunately, is that without that pressure, they will sit in jail.

CHANG: What do you think it will take for the situation to change in Myanmar?

LAKHDHIR: I wish I had the answer to that question. You know, at the moment, we see no signs that this is going to change. The government is continuing its denial of the atrocities that took place in Rakhine state. A real sense that if someone criticizes them, that they should lash back. And until that attitude changes, we'll continue to have prosecutions.

But the fundamental thing that needs to change is that the laws that are being used to arrest and prosecute journalists and ordinary citizens who criticize the government and the military need to be amended or repealed. And that's something the NLD could have done, should have done as soon as it took power. And instead of doing that, it's turned around and is itself using some of these laws against its critics.

CHANG: Linda Lakhdhir of the Human Rights Watch, thank you very much for joining us today.

LAKHDHIR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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