By OLIVER SLOW | FRONTIER
YANGON – Imprisoned in their own country, two detained Reuters journalists Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo were honoured by some of the biggest names in literature on Tuesday, when they were awarded the PEN America 2018 Barbey Freedom to Write Award at a ceremony in the United States.
The pair were arrested in Yangon in December. At the time, they were researching a story about the August killing of 10 Muslim men at Inn Din village, in northern Rakhine State. The article, published by Reuters in February, alleges that security personnel and local villagers were involved in the killing of the men.
They face a potential 14-year jail sentence under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act.
Police say they found incriminating documents on the pair during a routine patrol, but the reporters have said they were invited to a meeting by police who gave them the documents before their arrest. Police Captain Moe Yan Naing, called as a prosecution witness, testified last month that he had been ordered to “set up” Wa Lone. He has been sentenced to a year in prison for breaking police protocol.
At the ceremony, world-renowned novelist Margaret Atwood read out a statement on behalf of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, saying they were “deeply humbled” by the award.
“We desperately miss our families, our friends and our newsroom. Your encouragement fortifies our hopes,” it said.
“We want our people to understand that we never betrayed the country. The government can arrest us like this, waste our time in the court for many days and stop us from being able to write news, but we want to tell them right here that they can never hide the truth. We journalists will find the truth, even though they are sending us to prison,” it said.
The award was collected on the reporters’ behalf by Wa Lone’s brother, Ko Thura Aung, and Kyaw Soe Oo’s wife, Ma Chit Suu Win.
Some of the biggest names in literature also came together to write an open letter to Myanmar’s President, U Win Myint, calling for the pair’s release.
“The intrepid reporting of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo comes at a critical juncture for Myanmar and has profound implications for the future of the country,” the letter said.
It was signed by literary giants including Jonathan Franzen, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie and J.M. Coetzee.
The PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award recognises imprisoned writers targeted for exercising freedom of speech. Since 1987, 38 out of 42 jailed writers who received the award have been released due in part to the global awareness the award brings, PEN said.