It’s a witch-hunt against journalists in Myanmar, again. However, this time around the independent media industry shows more resilience than in past military repressions. Arrests, threats, and raids continue to hold back the free news flow. Some journalists decided to seek shelter and continue to work just across the border with northern Thailand. The region has always been a stronghold of the press for Myanmar’s independent media with several renowned national newsrooms set up during previous authoritarian regimes. Escaping the Junta, however, is a tough task. Reporters may choose to go through a legal channel and apply for a tourist visa in Thailand, but this requires financial as well as legal resources, something only a few possess. The most realistic and preferred path is to get to Thailand undercover, therefore increasing the risk of getting caught by the Burmese military or of being scorned by Thai authorities. Nonetheless, becoming a journalist and helping professional reporters is becoming a dream for many Burmese youth, who want to fightback against the military and re-gain their freedom. This motivation is proving to be enough for many to stay.
The new, new normal
On Mizzima website’s homepage – a well-known media house in Myanmar – a new video was uploaded on May 1st - “The Spring Revolution of Mizzima”. In six minutes, it explains how the news outlet had to relocate to safer places to continue broadcasting and delivering news to its audience. Local and international volunteers are helping the editorial staff publish the news. The team has built up four temporary tents on the edges of the country, and abroad, airing livestreams from 6am to 11pm every day through a MEASAT-3 satellite, reaching well over 6 million satellite receivers. Working from outside Myanmar during hard times is nothing new for Mizzima: the media group established a headquarter in New Delhi and a liaison office in Chiang Mai in ’98 – and Mizzima isn’t alone. The Irrawaddy, a notorious news outlet that reports in English and Burmese, was founded in ’93 by a group of journalists living in exile in Thailand, forced to flee following the persecution by the Burma military regime after the ’88 democratic uprisings. Myanmar Now, which came to the fore for having been one of the first media outlets to expose the Tatmadaw’s vast economic interests in Myanmar, has a long-standing connection with Chiang Mai as well. DVB – a famous Myanmar online and broadcasting news agency – is officially registered in Oslo and it has worked undercover from Thailand since the early ‘90s.
Will there be a new exile abroad? The answer for Soe Myint, founder and editor in chief of Mizzima, is “not really”. Fewer journalists are currently leaving the country than in ’88, while majority of them continue to work from within Myanmar, hoping the situation will change in the next months. “Of course, some key operations will be carried out from abroad”, he said from an unknown location in Myanmar during an online meeting held by the International Press Institute on May 6 about the impact of the coup on the publishing industry, which he joined as the main guest. “I am not new to this situation, we have been used to work under such conditions for decades, we just need to be safe enough to continue reporting timely”. The chief-editor explained the newsroom has been “divided in different teams” across the country “since before the coup”, other reporters are still based “in Yangon, Mandalay, while some others have entered recently in New Delhi seeking help from the UNHCR”. It was striking, however, to hear that “keep on being professional” is now the priority for Soe Myint. This is the “new, new normal”, the chief editor said then, referring to the surprising adaptation capacities that reporters have already shown during Covid-19 times due to the many restrictions that further hindered independent media’s work. “Our on-the-ground reporters were already used to work with Facebook and Viber, rather than face-to-face interview. Secondly, citizen journalists are on our side, and most of them are well trained”.
Towards Thailand and India: a similar pattern
“Myanmar journalists are continuing to report courageously from inside Myanmar. But some who’ve had arrest warrants issued against them have begun to seek refuge in neighboring countries”, a source in Thailand told me. Three senior Burmese journalists from DVB were arrested in Chiang Mai on Sunday during a random search by Thai police. Although the Thai central government is totally opposed to letting reporters and protesters in the country, they are welcomed instead by local communities at the border. The North of Thailand shares ethnic ties, language, and culture with the Karen and Shan people who inhabit Myanmar’s eastern regions. The Indian Manipur, at the North-West border with Myanmar, is also considered as a safe place. Three Burmese journalists, after having gone into hiding in the bordering town of Moreh, were finally set to move to New Delhi to get protection from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in late April. It was not easy. The authorization came after the regional Court of Manipur stated that there’s “no doubt that these persons face an imminent threat to their lives if they return”, overturning the hardline stance of the Indian central authority. The three reporters are among the many Burmese nationals, lawmakers, anti-coup protesters, defiant police, and military personnel who are trying to take shelter in bordering Indian regions.
There are complex ethnic relations that Myanmar minority groups share with regional neighbors; Chin people, for instance, have closer ties with Indian bordering communities, with many of them are now trying to get there. It seems the Thai and Indian routes exhibit the same pattern. Asylum seekers can rely on welcoming decentralized regional authorities and local communities, but they must deal with a nonpermissive central government – hoping instead for the immediate support of the UNHCR.
The current independent media landscape in Myanmar
Serious troubles for Myanmar independent media started on March 8, a month after senior general Ming Aung Hlaing seized the country and ousted the civilian government led by the elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. On that day, the junta revoked the operating licenses of Mizzima, Myanmar Now 7Day News, DVB and Khit Thit Media – five of the most renowned local news outlets nationwide.
To date, local news outlets with an English readership are less exposed.
Military personnel are regularly raiding newsrooms, storming houses and detaining family members of professional journalists, freelancers, cameraman or simply social media users sharing the wrong picture or post – it makes no difference. “Photographers no longer carry cameras and are taking cell phone shots. If they leave the house with cameras, they will be targeted for arrest by soldiers. When they try to shoot surreptitiously with their cell phones, however, they are accused by activists and neighbors of being "dalans", or military informants”, explains A Frontier Myanmar Editor, adding that: “Our reporter in Mandalay was shot by junta forces in his hand recently. After several surgeries he is still recovering, and it is not clear if he will ever regain full use of that hand”. The junta is taking advantage of the article 505 (a) of the penal code to imprison for up to three years those who circulate “any statement, rumor or report, with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public or [..] commit an offense against the State”. On May 6, MRTV, the main state-owned broadcaster, announced a ban on satellite television, through which DVB and Mizzima however continued to air their own programs even after their licenses’ revocation, thus facing a one-year sentence and a hefty fine. The regime’s order to shut down the Internet and mobile data connectivity has seriously undermined the work of high-profile professional reporters in an attempt to draw a veil over the ongoing violence. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), over 80 journalists have been arrested so far, while 50 are still in detention. Despite all this, independent media have found creative ways to keep on reporting and broadcasting. They have been helped by “Citizen Journalists”, as many young people are now commonly known for supporting news outlets sharing precious information and material via social media. They have managed to receive 2Fly Thai sim cards to stay online – a source reports to ISPI. They already knew how to document facts under a dictatorship.
The bond between the Media Industry and Corporate Business
The media industry, as almost all business sectors in Myanmar, has suffered two huge economic blows in the past year and half: first by Covid-19, then by the junta’s grip on power. It is also worth noting that during the ten years prior to the coup, while the media industry made consistent progress, the Military State ownership of media still had the lion’s share of the advertising market, while retaining the ability to license, regulate, sue, prosecute, and imprison its competitors. “There are two aspects of survival for Myanmar’s independent media. One is the political survival of the outlets and safety of journalists,” said Thompson Chau, corporate director at local media outlet Frontier Myanmar. “The other, somewhat overlooked, aspect is the financial survival of media outlets,” said Chau, who until recently was the associate editor at the Myanmar Times. The Myanmar Times voluntarily suspended its operations weeks after the coup. “If news outlets were to survive in such a hostile environment, they need a lot more resources so local journalists could keep their jobs, feed their families and go on reporting. Media companies, like swathes of Myanmar’s economy, were already hit hard by Covid-19 last year. We are in a precarious position.” “It is in the interest of the business community to support independent publications in this crisis. Pay, donate and sign up as a member - simple as that.” “For example, increased political risks associated with the Myanmar market, new sanctions on military entities and ongoing atrocities mean investors need to conduct enhanced due diligence on local partners,” he said. “Without a free press, corporate executives and managers will struggle to look for the information essential for their investment and company decisions. Ultimately, responsible businesses and the independent press co-inhabit the same ‘shared space’, in which both benefit from respect for human rights and rule of law, as well as unrestricted flow of information.”
From brainwashed to fully aware
After just three months since the coup, the Junta set the media industry in Myanmar ten year back. The fact that the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s armed force, has always considered independent media in the country as an enemy rather than an allied force for the economy and society, is nothing new. Its propaganda, however, tells a different story. While the military keeps repeating how the media play a vital role in the national democratic transition, journalists and their relatives are main targets of violent repressions, being forced to work under cover and exiled in neighboring countries. However, there is still a fundamental difference from the military crackdowns of ’62 and ’88, argues Lisa Brooten of Southern Illinois University, and author of “Myanmar Media in Transition: Legacies, Challenges and Change”, in a recent interview. She explains that independent media is now experienced and well-equipped enough to deal with the situation. The network of local news outlets and grassroot organizations operating in-country and at border areas have strengthened their cooperation in the past thirty years, and they are now supported by the vast majority of the population -unanimously rejecting the regime, independently from ethnic belongings. In the past decades there was a “militarization of the media”, which created a lot of confusion and led people to start questioning what exactly journalism is, mistaking reporters for Tatmadaw informers.
If there’s a silver lining to this, it’s that Myanmar people are starting to see the military junta for what it truly is. “Since the coup, we all start to speak openly about ethnic issues, Burmese people now understand the atrocities and crimes perpetuated to ethnic minorities in the past years. We are realizing that those “bad guys”, this is how Ethnic Armed Organizations, as the Kachin Independence Army or The Karen National Union, were portrayed by the military propaganda, weren’t that bad”, tells me “Snow”, a Yangon-based filmmaker and documentarist who preferred to be named that way. “We got brainwashed for so long, people now fully understand the inestimable work of independent media and finally we are all fighting for the same cause”.