PEN America announced yesterday that it would honour imprisoned Myanmar reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were arrested on December 12, 2017, while investigating violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, with the 2018 PEN/ Barbey Freedom to Write Award.
Since 1987, PEN America has honored more than 50 individual writers worldwide with the Freedom to Write Award, recognizing their struggle in the face of adversity for the right to free expression. Of the 42 writers who were imprisoned at the time of announcing the award, 37 have been freed, due in part to the attention and pressure the award generates.
“By simply doing their jobs, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo demonstrated exceptional courage, knowing full well the risks they were taking in pursuing this story. Yet they continued in their dogged and deeply important investigation. They demonstrate the importance of free expression in exposing abuses and shining a light on the truth. Having honored imprisoned writers during the time of the junta, we at PEN America were hopeful that civilian rule and democratic elections would mark an end to the jailing of journalists in Myanmar,” said PEN America Executive Director Suzanne Nossel. “We have come to realize that we celebrated too soon. The unjust prosecution of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo is a jarring reminder that the fight for free expression in Myanmar remains incomplete and urgent. We are proud to honor these intrepid reporters and hope the Award sounds a powerful signal that global concern for human rights in Myanmar will not let up.”
If convicted under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, the journalists face up to 14 years in prison. Both journalists are currently being held at Insein Prison in Yangon, an institution notorious for its use of torture and the calculated mistreatment of its prisoners. Earlier this month, Reuters published an investigative report on a alleged massacre of civilians at Inn Din village in Rakhine State, which Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were developing at the time of their arrest.
In its 2015 report, Unfinished Freedom: A Blueprint for the Future of Free Expression in Myanmar, PEN America details the fraught landscape for free expression in Myanmar, in particular for media freedom, in the years following the end of the military junta’s rule.
The PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award will be conferred on Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo at the 2018 PEN America Literary Gala on May 22.