The Freedom to Write Award honors writers and journalists jailed for their work, and it may help boost their chances of being released. PEN America said that 42 jailed writers have received the Freedom to Write Award since 1987, and 37 of them were ultimately released. “It can help elevate the case diplomatically,” said Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested Dec. 12 and accused by the Burmese government of having “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media.” The pair are being held under the country's Official Secrets Act, but they have yet to be charged officially and continue to be denied due process. If convicted under the arcane colonial-era law, the journalists could face up to 14 years in prison.
At the time of their arrest, the two reporters were looking into a Burmese military operation in Inn Din, a fishing village in the country's conflict-ridden Rakhine state. Rakhine, the home of most of Burma's Rohingya Muslim minority, is where the Burmese military launched a campaign against the Rohingya last year that the United Nations has called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
In Inn Din, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo reported, Burmese troops enlisted non-Muslim locals to help torch Rohingya houses, kill 10 male villagers — eight men and two teenage boys — and dump their bodies in a mass grave. The in-depth investigation, published Feb. 8, instantly became the most thorough and detailed account so far of any of the violence in Rakhine.
Nossel hopes that news of the award will reach the two men in prison and help lift their spirits. Past winners of such awards have commented on the psychological boost they got from knowing that their work — and the risks they accepted to report difficult stories — were being acknowledged publicly even as they were being denied a voice.
“There is . . . a morale aspect of it to know that you are not forgotten,” Nossel said.
PEN America has previously given awards to four other Burmese journalists, all during the rule of the country's military junta. That rule ended in 2010 with the election of a civilian government, but the military maintains considerable political power.
“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,” Nossel said. “It is now clear we celebrated too soon.”