Two Years After the Coup: Myanmar Journalists Go Underground, But Soldier On
2 FEBRUARY 2023
“No one takes pictures in public, even ordinary citizens. So, I only use a mobile (phone) and take (them) secretly,” said a TV reporter based in Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital. “We can’t get public (person-on-the-street) voices, which were very easy to get before,” he added.
“We couldn’t let each other know (that we produce news), even our friends, journalists, and also we dare not let people know where we live,” a freelance woman journalist in Yangon said, given the risks involved in being known as a journalist as well as wariness about informers.
These insights say a lot about the state of journalism in Myanmar two years after the military coup of 1 February 2021. Since then, the military regime, called the State Administration Council (SAC), has consistently targeted the independent news media through the arrest, detention, prosecution and conviction of journalists, the cancellation of news and other publishing licences, and imposition of internet shutdowns.
In what rights and media advocacy groups has called judicial persecution, the SAC has been using laws, including those it amended weeks after the coup, to prosecute and convict journalists on security-related crimes such as incitement, terrorism and terrorism.
There were at least 40 journalists arrested in 2022, bringing to at least 175 the number of arrested news professionals and staffers since the coup, going by one monitoring count*. Twenty-four journalists were released, some of whom had been arrested in 2021.
‘These days, the biggest challenge is security. Another is hunting for information,” said the exiled editor-founder of a news agency. ‘We have to double, triple-check information.’
A total of 42 journalists were convicted during the year, the majority them found guilty for incitement, followed by terrorism-related crimes. A good number faced multiple charges, with the longest combined sentence thus far being 15 years’ imprisonment. In at least one case, an additional sentence for an editor was handed down toward the end of his first conviction, effectively lengthening his time in prison.
As of end-December 2022, at least 62 journalists and news professionals were reported to still be in detention.
The year 2023 is expected to even tougher as the SAC would brook no dissent as it prepares to hold a national ‘election’ to legitimize its rule.
These days, most of the independent media have either closed down or have moved their newsrooms to Myanmar’s border areas and other countries. Many journalists have gone into exile, mostly in Thailand, and a number have sought asylum in third countries.
Those that still do news work inside the country do so at risk to life and safety. It has become a challenge for a professional journalist to do even the usual tasks of interviewing and cross-checking of information. Especially while reporting from Myanmar, the use of pseudonyms has become a necessary norm for journalists.
In the wake of the military regime’s cancellation of newspaper licences and other printing and publishing permits since the coup, the printing of newspapers has stopped. The news outlets that continue are mainly those that follow the SAC’s guidelines.
Journalists from outlets that cooperate with the junta attend its press conferences. But even that is no guarantee of safety. In November 2022, two journalists with news outlets friendly to the junta found themselves arrested after they posed unwelcome questions at an SAC press conference, according to reports by Myanmar media and media rights groups.
Still under watch
While scores of journalists (at least 24 in 2022) have been released from prison, including several included in recent amnesties, going back to news work carries an extremely high risk for themselves and their families. They continue to be watched by the military regime, and their releases are not unconditional.
Several released journalists were asked to sign agreements saying they are aware that they can be held accountable “for all previous offences at once”, as a reporter, who was freed in 2022, put it. Warned against reporting about security forces again, another journalist recalls being told that “if I don’t listen, they are going to shoot me instead of arresting me next time”.
They also cope with the impact that their imprisonment had on their families. One recalls that his mother’s already fragile mental health took a turn for the worse after she witnessed his arrest. “My wife struggled to find money to pay for food and travel expenses for the lawyer to attend my trials,” he added.
“I am now living a low-key life like a normal citizen, due the current political circumstances in Myanmar,” he said. Should he go back to news work, the journalist says he would have change how and what he reports about to stay safe. If he wants to report on issues relating to the military regime, he will have to relocate outside the country.
On alert ahead of the ‘election’
“We’ve heard that the SAC will arrest some journalists before the election period. I don’t know if that information is true or not. 2023 can be tougher than before,” said a Yangon-based reporter. “(But) we need to be aware of that, and always be on alert for our security.”
Journalists are also discussing how they will cover the junta ‘election’. This election was previously described as being expected in August, but on 31 January, the military regime extended emergency rule, which has been in place since the coup, by another six months. SAC chief Min Aung Hlaing said Myanmar was not ready to hold a general election, adding that there continued to be acts of “terror” by anti-junta groups.
“I won’t also take any media card for junta’s illegal election. They won’t allow to do so (too) because we are not propaganda journalists,” said the same reporter, who skips the SAC press events.
“As a professional journalist, I have to do reporting but it will be about true evidence of the way they cheat citizens, and the human rights violations in their illegal election,” said the reporter in exile, who covered the 2015 and 2020 elections in Myanmar. “I have to document and present this to the local and international audience, including international media and other organisations that monitor elections. These will be evidence one day.”
“I believe that the journalists close to them (military) will be allowed to cover their event, but professional journalists won’t get that kind of chance,” said the chief editor of a local news service based in northern Myanmar. So, we’ve decided not to cover (it) from the ground, but we’ll dig out the human rights violations and election fraud as much as we can.”
The new year also brings continuing concerns around journalism, not just as a profession but as a means of decent livelihood. Worries persist around ways of sustaining journalism and journalists in the long run, given Myanmar’s protracted crises and military rule at a time of competing international priorities that draw attention and resources away from the country’s crises.
“I don’t want to quit at this time because I want to be a journalist and document their (military’s) systematic abuses and crimes against humanity, including extrajudicial killings, torture and wrongful imprisonment,” said an online journalist living in exile.
Uncertain and insecure
But for many news professionals, whether based inside or outside Myanmar, their top concern, apart from safety, is how, if, and how long they can continue to work and rely on journalism as a means of livelihood.
From within the country, finding regular and decent income from news is a major challenge, not least given the decline of the media industry. Before the coup, a journalist with more than three years’ experience was making around 250 US dollars a month, and up to thrice or more that amount when working for bigger media houses.
Since the coup, which came on top of the COVID-19 disruptions, many have had no regular work.
Citizen journalists are paid less, and have little or no job security. A citizen journalist makes the equivalent of 70 dollars as a monthly salary, or from 3 to 7 dollars for one short news article.
Several journalists have left the news profession. Some continue but have taken to earning some income from non-journalistic work. “As I’m a freelancer, I don’t have regular income. It’s not enough for my living and I need to do extra jobs,” said a woman journalist who delivers food products and other items.
Some exiled journalists are struggling too. “I moved to safer places three times, then moved to Mae Sot (Thailand),” said a journalist with over a decade’s experience. “We face difficulties here from being jobless.”
A full-time journalist working in exile can be making 200 to 600 dollars a month, or double or more in more established media groups. “My salary is enough, only for me. If I have some family members, it wouldn’t be enough,” another exiled journalist said.
Many founders and editors of independent news outlets, dependent on grants since the coup, worry about how long such assistance can last.
“I asked myself this question about long-term funding, many times, but I don’t have an answer yet. At this time, we can’t hope for advertisements and we can’t get revenues from readers because of our country’s economic downturn,” reflected another exiled journalist, who is editor and founder of a news agency. “I’ve decided to continue as much as I can if the funding stops. I expect that I can hire at least one person and we can run our agency.”
The northern region-based editor added: “Expenses are double than before. We have to move to many places, and need to choose safe transportation routes even though they take longer. This needs more money, and we can expect that kind of funds only from donors,” he said. “If funding stops, we can last one to two years at most.”
Quality of news
While withholding the names of news sources and other details is necessary in Myanmar’s embattled news setting, this is far from ideal given the value of diversity, accountability and transparency in the professional context of journalism. There are questions about the toll that this extremely restricted climate can have on the quality of news needed about the country’s crisis.
As it is, verification takes longer in places in Myanmar where internet services have been shut down – as they have been in conflict areas – or where they are unreliable and expensive as well.
“Local journalists always have to be ready to relocate, and have a Plan B. In some areas, the Myanmar army burnt down the whole villages and blacked out internet. In times like that, it is too hard to get news and sources,” said the same northern editor.
“These days, the biggest challenge is security. Another is hunting for information,” said the exiled editor-founder of a news agency.
“We have to double, triple-check information. You can see that some data are a bit different with one media to another. And we also can’t use our sources’ names in the news for security. At this hard time, some of the stories may not be perfect,” he continued. “But I hope that the readers can understand the situation if it is done by the news outlets they trust.”
At times, sources don’t pick up calls from reporters, an exiled journalist said. For those that they are able to reach from overseas, he added, “We have to believe what they say. So we have to do interviews with many people, to clarify.”
(*There are several monitoring efforts underway relating to the media situation in Myanmar. There are variations in their numbers, due to different parameters and other reasons.)