Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are free. Last year, the two Reuters journalists were imprisoned in Myanmar for reporting on human rights abuses against the Rohingya. This week, they were released under a presidential pardon.
The two men, their families, colleagues and free speech activists will rightly celebrate their release. Nevertheless, their freedom is clouded by the manner in which it has come about. A presidential pardon is a frustrating conclusion to this case.
Pardons have a particular place in judicial systems. There may be unusual circumstances where a person has indeed broken the law, but the sentence imposed is inappropriate. A pardon asserts that the conviction was correct, but alleviates the punishment.
That is wholly unsatisfactory in cases where the law has been abused, as it was in the case of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. Although they are out of prison, there has been no acknowledgement by the state that the convictions were a clear miscarriage of justice. In fact, the pardon reasserts the just opposite – that there was nothing wrong with the imprisonment.
As I wrote for the New Statesman in September, such pardons are granted on the whim of an authoritarian leader, and it maintains a draconian status quo. “The power to arbitrarily censor is retained, and anxiety remains among activists and journalists, over what can and cannot be said.”
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo may be free, but they now live with the fear of state power. Their work will be more difficult, and the memory of their convictions will discourage other journalists from working on similar news stories. This is a “chill” on free speech that should never be present in any country that claims to be a democracy. Myanmar may allow parliamentary elections, but this disgraceful infringement on free speech has shown that it has a long way to go before its people are truly free.
In Scotland, juries in criminal trials can return a verdict of “not proven” when they suspect the accused is guilty, but not “beyond reasonable doubt”. The defendant walks free, but the stigma of the accusation remains. Sir Walter Scott called not proven “that bastard verdict”, and I am minded to put a similar label on these “bastard pardons” that release, but do not exonerate these brave journalists. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo may be out of prison, but the campaign for their vindication, and for true freedom of expression in Myanmar, is unfortunately still a work in progress.