Arbitrary arrests, torture, surveillance, economic uncertainty, exile. This is the new normal for journalists in Myanmar since the February 1 military coup.
Six months later, the junta has shown no signs of changing course from its crackdown on independent media, civil society, and democracy. Two weeks ago, after declaring himself prime minister, the junta’s leader postponed elections and the lifting of the state of emergency until August 2023.
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) almost 950 people have been killed following the coup, and nearly 5,500 people are currently detained amid the junta’s violent suppression of mass protests. In total, 93 journalists and media staff have been arrested, with 40 of them still detained.
According to Reporting ASEAN, as of July 30 five journalists have been convicted of Section 505A, which has become the junta’s key weapon against the press. Section 505A was added to the penal code after the coup and criminalizes comments that “cause fear”, spread “false news” or “agitate directly or indirectly a criminal offence against a Government employee”. It carries a punishment of up to three years in prison. One journalist has been convicted under Section 188, which forbids “disobedience to orders by a public servant”.
The IPI global network has repeatedly condemned the ongoing repression of journalists and the brutal crackdown on media in Myanmar, and continues to demand the immediate release of all jailed journalists.
Determined to work, despite the risks
Myanmar journalists interviewed by IPI this month underscored the deteriorating situation.
”Journalists who are still reporting from Myanmar are at a high risk of getting arrested or killed”, Soe Myint, the editor-in-chief of Myanmar-based Mizzima Media Group and an IPI member, said. “Another challenge is mobility because we have to move constantly to avoid the police and soldiers. Communication between journalists and news outlets is difficult because everybody is working in different locations.”
Thin Lei Win, a Burmese freelance journalist currently living in Europe, highlighted similar challenges.
“You can’t identify yourself as a journalist in public unless you’re working for a news outlet favourable of the junta”, she said. “Doing journalism has always been difficult in Myanmar but now there are unprecedented levels of assault. It’s very dangerous but journalists are doing their job regardless because people abroad and inside the country need information. Burmese journalists have a deep feeling of responsibility to keep recording what’s going on.”
Exile, torture, and surveillance
Several jailed journalists were released on July 30 as part of a wider release of about 2,300 people, but some were arrested again soon after. Freed journalists reported experiencing torture, beatings, threats, and inhumane conditions during their detention.
Several foreign reporters have also been detained or forced out of the country. U.S. journalist Danny Fenster, the editor of Frontier Myanmar, is still imprisoned in Insein Prison in Yangon despite international calls for his release. Another U.S. journalist, Nathan Maung, the editor-in-chief of Kamayut Media, was released on June 14 after being detained for more than three months.
Many journalists have fled into self-imposed exile to neighbouring India and Thailand. But this carries its own risks. “In Thailand the (Burmese) journalists don’t have legal status, they can be charged for illegally crossing the border and breaching COVID-19 restrictions”, Soe Myint explained.
Indeed, three journalists working for the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) were detained and charged by Thai authorities in May for entering the country illegally. In that case, the journalists were later resettled to another, undisclosed country instead of being deported back to Myanmar.
“The detention and charges were still a clear message by the Thai government that Burmese journalists are not welcome there”, Thin Lei Win said.
Furthermore, the junta has shut down internet connectivity and social media platforms several times after the coup, with serious consequences for the public’s right to access information. “Facebook is the main source of information for Burmese people. The junta banned Facebook, the internet connection has been intermittent, and you need to use a VPN to access the internet”, Thin Lei Win told IPI.
In Myanmar’s repressive environment, mobile phones are a vital part of communicating with sources, gathering evidence, and reporting. But mobile phone activity has also become riskier, as the regime has stepped up efforts to spy on the devices of journalists, activists, and citizen journalists. Worryingly, a recent investigation by Thin Lei Win and several journalist colleagues found that the junta is using European surveillance technology to spy on its citizens and journalists. One of the spyware products Myanmar’s military has bought is a digital forensic tool from the Swedish company MSAB.
Trust in journalism has grown
As journalists are not able to operate openly in the field, the importance of trusted sources, secure communication channels, and brave citizen journalists has become greater than ever. “Citizen journalists are mostly young people on the streets with their mobile phones and little to no journalistic training, providing information to the career journalists”, Thin Lei Win said.
Notably, both Soe Myint and Thin Lei Win underscored in their interviews with IPI that the public’s trust and support of independent media in Myanmar has increased remarkably since the coup.
“This is partly because we stand with the people and report about their lives and struggles. The military regime banned free information and replaced it with their propaganda, which people don’t believe in or don’t even want to watch”, Soe Myint said. “Mizzima Media is celebrating its 23rd anniversary this year, and we have seen a huge rise in our social media following since the coup.”
The public’s embrace of independent journalism is also a shift from recent years. Previously, attacks on press freedom, such as the jailing of Reuters journalists and Pulitzer Prize-winners Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo for their reporting on the Rohingya genocide, did not receive the same level of opposition from the public.
“During the Rohingya crisis people were blaming media for making Myanmar look bad. Controversial views and investigative journalism were frowned upon”, Thin Lei Win explained. “Now, people realise how important independent media is. A silver lining from the coup is that citizens trust professional journalism a lot more.”
Keep talking about Myanmar
In February the military junta revoked the licences of Mizzima, Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), Khit Thit Media, Myanmar Now, and 7Day News and ordered the media outlets to stop publishing and broadcasting immediately. Many of these media continue to do their jobs, but under tremendously difficult circumstances, including economic ones.
“Funding is a struggle, because news outlets don’t have funds or they are not able to access them”, Thin Lei Win pointed out.
”Mizzima has been able to pay salaries with international support, but we need more funding. Long-term funding is especially needed”, Soe Myint said. ”As journalists, no matter what happens in the future, we have to do our job well. The political, societal, and economic situation will get worse, especially due to the struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic. But there will be even more resistance against the military regime and people will keep fighting.”
What can the international public do to support Myanmar’s courageous journalists?
“If you have funds, support the independent media in Myanmar. We need funding for salaries and setting up newsroom in exile”, Thin Lei Win said.
She added: “Please keep talking about Myanmar. Talk about it if that’s the only thing you can afford. What’s happening in Myanmar is the story of what happens when dictators come to power – this is also happening in other parts of the world. People should care because it could happen in their country.”