Not long after enjoying their first taste of freedom, Myanmar’s journalists say they are barely able to function, as the soldiers who toppled the country’s democratically elected government three months ago have moved to choke off the flow of information through intimidation, arrests, and violence.
In interviews with Radio Free Asia, or RFA, multiple reporters, editors, and photographers – speaking from hiding and on condition of anonymity to protect their safety – say the junta that deposed Aung San Suu Kyi and her government on Feb. 1 has made it dangerous and difficult to gather news about the biggest story of their lives.
The media professionals cite a litany of measures – including internet and satellite blackouts, confiscation of mobile phones, closures of independent media outlets, beatings, and arrests – that the military regime is using to thwart them and to scare off sources from talking to media.
“Journalists are living in fear because there is no safety for us,” a senior editor from a Myanmar news agency told RFA’s Myanmar Service this week.
“Many reporters have been arrested. Some of us have been barred from reporting,” the editor said.
“We cannot contact any of our sources due to the internet blackout, we cannot make phone calls effectively and we cannot carry our mobile phones as we travel,” the editor said.
“If they check Facebook accounts, the journalists will be arrested one way or another. We cannot carry any reporting gadgets now,” the editor added. “The flow of news in this country has almost stopped.”
A multimedia journalist from Mandalay, the country’s second-largest city, told RFA that no one is safe from the junta efforts to clamp down on coverage of nationwide protests that have seen millions turn out in protests rejecting the coup, and violent crackdowns that have killed more than 750 people, mostly civilians.
“Previously they would excuse journalists who were working for international outlets, but now they arrest everyone. They are also terminating licenses for local media outlets, so it is not inaccurate to say that media freedom is completely gone,” the Mandalay journalist said.
Conditions have never been great for journalists in a country run by military men for two-thirds of its 72-year existence as modern state, but they were improving during a political thaw and the transition from a quasi-military government to civilian rule from 2013-17, according to Reporters Without Borders.
During that time frame, the country’s rank in RSF’s annual freedom index rose considerably, and “Myanmar’s journalists hoped they would never again have to fear arrest or imprisonment for criticizing the government or military,” the Paris-based media freedom watchdog group said in a recent report.
“The coup d’etat … brought that fragile progress to an abrupt end and set Myanmar’s journalists back 10 years,” lamented RSF.
The Mandalay journalist said that the situation is so bad that people can’t use mobile phones in public, because security forces now search everyone and arrest and beat those who carry mobile phones, or demand cash to avoid legal prosecution, sources said.
If they find photos, videos, or social media posts they deem offensive to the military, they press charges and confiscate gear. In some cases, they confiscate expensive, latest-model phones without finding any offending content, or demand cash if they are unable to extract fines because their target left their phone alone.
“They inspect everyone’s mobile phone. Journalists cannot go out and do their jobs because we always have news photos on our phones,” the Mandalay journalist said.
“Some of us wear helmets with a prominent ‘PRESS’ label on them, but that only gets us targeted for beatings from the authorities. We have seen them going after reporters in the field, to arrest them,” the Mandalay journalist added.
“It’s now very dangerous for reporters. We have to take videos from a distance, and that’s not great for many multimedia platforms, as we have to use these poor-quality videos shot from such a distance,” the reporter added.
A Yangon photojournalist said the junta’s security forces have actively prevented him from covering events.
“As I travel into the field to take photos, the authorities have opened my bag to inspect it. They asked me to surrender my memory cards,” the photojournalist said.
Freelance reporters who cannot afford to rent a car take public buses, “so now the authorities are stopping … buses for inspections,” added the Yangon photojournalist.
“We cannot know where they will be inspecting, because the inspections on buses and vehicles are sudden,” added the photojournalist.
Citizens are also afraid to talk to the media or be photographed out of fear that they could be identified and punished by the junta.
“As I try to cover news from different parts of the country, it is rare that the people open up and confide in me with all the information they have. They have lost their trust in the media because the military is using all kinds of tactics to suppress freedom of speech and the press,” said the senior editor.
People on the streets of Myanmar’s largest city “get nervous as soon as they see someone holding a camera,” sad the Yangon photojournalist.
“It used to be pretty easy to get a photo or video because the people would work with us. But lately they are worried about repression,” the photojournalist said.
“Some people in the neighborhood are suspected military informants, so when you hold a camera, people might think you are an informant.”
According to an RFA tally, 73 journalists and media personnel have been arrested since the coup on Feb. 1, and 44 remain in detention.
While Myanmar journalists had looked at the rule of Suu Kyi as a golden era for reporting, RSF said dark clouds were already gathering midway through her 2015-20 term.
It cited the prosecution in 2018 of two Reuters reporters who had revealed an army massacre of Muslim Rohingya civilians in western Myanmar and were jailed for 500 days, or for about a year and a half, “on the basis of fabricated evidence and bogus criminal proceedings.”
“This coup was not a complete surprise inasmuch as the climate for press freedom had already been worsening again during the past three years,” said RSF.