By Tommy Walker
Myanmar’s media freedom record has charted a drastically downward trajectory over the past year.
Within hours of the military ousting Myanmar’s democratically elected government in February, the junta sought to control access to information, cutting the internet and blocking social media sites.
From there, broadcasters had their licenses revoked, journalists were arrested, and in December, at least two media workers were killed: photojournalist Soe Naing, who died in military custody, and Sai Win Aung, who was killed covering fighting in the Myawadddy district of the country, near the Thai border.
Myanmar went into 2020 with no journalists behind bars. By March, the junta had detained dozens of journalists, including Thein Zaw, who works for the Associated Press, and freelance journalist Robert Bociaga.
Political analyst Aung Thu Nyein said 2021 was one of the worst years for the media.
“I can say the last year is the most oppressive year against independent media in Myanmar.”
He noted how reporters have been targeted in the same capacity as those refusing to accept military rule. “The junta has been using a broad range of actions against activists, journalists, and armed fighters, the worst is accusing them of anti-terrorism charges.”
“What I [expect] in a new year will not be a different environment, [not a] release of the military iron grip, I worry the restriction will be imposed on a new front—social media by building firewalls similar to China,” Aung Thu Nyein added.
Win Zaw Naing, an editor for the independent news website Red News Agency, told VOA, that “journalists are now being targeted, arrested and sued.”
Yet, the official message from the spokesman for the military, Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun, was that the military “respects and values media freedom” and has only arrested journalists who were inciting unrest.
As of December, at least 26 were currently detained, with many more arrested and later released during the year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Most of those arrested are held on charges under Section 505A, a new provision of Myanmar’s Penal Code law that criminalizes “causing fear, spreading fake news or agitating crimes against the government.”
Many journalists were held in Yangon’s Insein Prison, which rights groups say has a reputation for inhumane conditions and treatment. Journalists like Yuki Kitazumi from Japan, who was detained for one month, spoke to VOA about incidents of torture of the inmates.
Most of the political prisoners were tortured in the military compound, [the] military institute, “where fellow inmates suffered abuse while blindfolded throughout intake interrogations,” said Kitazumi.
“One man was asked to choose: knife or a gun?” Kitazumi said of the interrogation techniques used by the military.
And American journalist Nathan Maung, who was detained for nearly 100 days at Insein, says his captors initially blindfolded him, provided no water and food for days, and beat him while the journalist was confined to a chair.
Maung was the first of two U.S. journalists to be detained. Danny Fenster, the managing editor of Frontier Now, was arrested in May as he was about to board a plane back to his hometown of Detroit, Michigan.
Fenster was accused of working for Myanmar Now, an outlet banned by the junta. While he had previously worked for the news website, Fenster had quit months before the coup.
Despite that, he was later sentenced to 11 years in jail, before finally being released and deported in November.
Fenster’s arrest served as a warning to other journalists, according to political analysts and experts who spoke with VOA.
Working in exile
With the risk of arrest increasing, some like Mratt Kyaw Thaw decided to go into exile. The 31-year-old had won the AFP’s Kate Webb Award in 2017 for his coverage of the Rohingya genocide. But fast-forward to 2021, he was wanted by the military.
Mratt Kyaw Thaw said the junta quickly denounced his work.
“I think February 12 they announced my name as fake news,” he told VOA.
When his name was announced on state-owned radio after he interviewed a military general who had defected, Mratt Kyaw Thaw decided to leave. He left Yangon and was able to eventually enter Spain as an asylum seeker. He told VOA in June, “I’m a fugitive forever.”
For many journalists, reporting on the ground had become untenable. Several outlets have suspended operations or have started working from exile.
One of those is the Democratic Voice of Burma, or DVB.
Exiled Burmese founded the DVB in 2005, with the broadcaster providing unfiltered news and information about Myanmar. In 2012, DVB slowly moved back into Myanmar before being banned by the military this year. It is now managed in Oslo, Norway and Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Aye Chan Naing, editorial director of DVB, said they would continue to report despite the obstacles.
“For this situation is nothing new, we have been doing this from exile for the past 20 years, until we moved to Yangon in 2012, for us it’s nothing really special, but we have to take the risk, like in the past.”
The editor admitted, though, that the broadcaster is now decentralized, and it is relying on citizen journalists because of the risks to reporters.
“Being an independent journalist is already a ticket to get arrested,” Aye Chan Naing said.
Thomas Kean, editor-in-chief of English language news outlet Frontier Myanmar, pointed to the banning of the five media outlets in March as the watershed moment for Myanmar’s media decline.
“Since then, more have been banned, more journalists have been arrested, and it’s been downhill since then, gradually more difficult, month by month,” said Kean.
His own publication has stopped its print edition and temporarily suspended its website given the uncertainty around the country.
One Myanmar journalist, known as Cape Diamond, believes the junta is clamping down on reporters because it is frightened by the media.
“The junta know how important the journalism is, that’s why they are oppressing the journalists as much as they can.”
But as Myanmar enters its second year under military rule, Aung Thu Nyein said the future remains bleak for the country’s media.
“I believe the military won’t loosen its grip until its proposed elections in 2023. I worry the restriction will be imposed on a new front—social media, by building firewalls similar to China.”