Looking for a silver lining in Myanmar’s thick, dark cloud

Independent media in Myanmar is on life support. It had come under unprecedented assault by the military junta that staged a pre-dawn coup on Feb. 1, the morning when a new parliament was set to convene, based on the results of a November 2020 elections that handed a humiliating defeat to the political party affiliated with the powerful military. 

The abuses the junta has meted out to its own people — targeted killings at unarmed protesters, random shootings that killed children, forced labour, torture and murder of detainees, et al — have been well documented. 

But it has also made it impossible — and extremely dangerous — for journalists to work. In the space of less than six months, Myanmar’s military has dragged the country — and the media industry — back by decades.

I grew up in Myanmar in the 1980s and 1990s so I’m definitely aware of the repression and threats journalists faced then. In fact, my parents were opposed to my choice of profession when I started out 20 years ago precisely because of these fears — but the oppression this time is unmatched even by the previous eras. This is mainly because, however limited or flawed it may have been, we tasted freedom in the past 10 years. 

Journalism has always been a dangerous profession in Myanmar. Neither the junta nor the democratically-elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government have much love for independent media or press freedom. 

Between 2016 to 2020, when the NLD was in power, many media outlets and journalists faced arrests, threats, lawsuits and in the worst cases, attempts on their lives.

My former colleagues from the Reuters bureau in Myanmar were arrested and jailed under trumped-up charges for exposing the military’s abuses against the Rohingya Muslims in the country’s west. My former colleague Swe Win, who now runs the Myanmar Now news agency which I set up in 2015, faced a drawn-out defamation case for criticizing nationalist monk Wirathu and was shot at a year before the 2020 polls. 

But we were also able to cover topics previously considered controversial, from official corruption and military abuses to civil wars along the border and social issues that successive leaders tried hard to ignore. Journalists learnt to ask difficult questions in a deeply-conservative country where age and position automatically confers respect. 

Now, if you are a journalist, not only yourself but your family and friends are targets. The junta has threatened, shot at, arrested and tortured journalists, including foreign reporters and editors. It revoked the licenses of at least eight media outlets, making it extremely dangerous and difficult for journalists from these places to gather news and speak to sources. Many others have stopped publishing or folded to protect themselves and their staff. 

Nearly 50 reporters and editors are still in jail as of July 16, according to the non-profit Assistance Association for Political Prisoners which has been tracking the cases. Many journalists are in hiding. Many more have not slept in their homes since Feb 1. Few newsrooms are still operating out of their registered addresses.

The junta has also made it difficult for ordinary citizens to read reliable news. It suspended access to local and international news networks, blocked many websites and social media channels, and has threatened to jail and fine people if they have illegal satellite dishes that broadcast banned channels. 

Despite these threats, local media across Myanmar has really stepped up to this challenge. Journalists are still working, including those who are in hiding. 

I expected the amount of news coming out of the country to drop off precipitously when the junta cut broadband WiFi in early April. According to Frontier Myanmar, an independent news outlet, internet restrictions are estimated to have shut down around 98% of all connections inside the country. 

While they made it much harder to contact people and caused a significant decline in interactions on social media, we are still receiving images, videos and news of events across the country every single day. 

This is thanks to a whole crop of citizen journalists (CJs) who have popped up to fill the gap left by journalists who can no longer work in public. These CJs are armed with nothing more than their mobile phones which they use to capture the news and relay them to us through any means possible, at great personal risk to themselves and their families. 

The fact that many Myanmar media are still operating and breaking news is a testament to the commitment and courage of journalists in and from the country. 

If there are silver linings among all this horror, one is that the creativity of the young generation remains undimmed. New political journals have popped up to counter the Internet shutdowns and the junta’s propaganda and they are printed and distributed locally. 

The other is that people are finally seeing the value of independent media. Over the past few years, especially in the wake of the atrocities against the Rohingya, people in Myanmar thought journalists were sensationalizing, or worse, lying, about what was happening. 

In fact, some accused Reuters journalists of being traitors for exposing what the military did. Any journalist showing sympathy for the Rohingya or critical of NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi faced virulent attacks. 

Many now say they realize the importance of independent media and it has been heartening, despite the circumstances, to see this. 

Courage and recognition alone won’t save Myanmar media though. Countries and organizations that value press freedom should provide sustained support for its survival.