Myanmar’s embattled press faces a military coup

Yesterday—after a decade of democratic transition, five years of elected government, and several days of threats, apparent walkbacks, and rumors—Myanmar’s military executed a coup and returned to power. Myawaddy TV, a station owned by the military, announced that Min Aung Hlaing—the army’s commander in chief, who faces war-crimes allegations linked to the persecution of the country’s Muslim Rohingya population—would take power. (The announcement couched the coup as a constitutional “state of emergency,” justified by “terrible fraud” in November elections that returned the civilian National League for Democracy to power and handed a heavy defeat to the military’s proxy party, that will last for one year ahead of new elections.) Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s elected leader, has been detained and her whereabouts remain unclear; hundreds of elected lawmakers, meanwhile, have been placed under house arrest. The United Nations fears that the coup will lead to yet more devastating consequences for the Rohingya; more than three-quarters of a million Rohingya have already fled for neighboring Bangladesh, while around six hundred thousand remain in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, around one fifth of whom are effectively detained in camps.

As the military set the coup in motion, internet and telephone access became patchy; NetBlocks, a company that monitors web access globally, reported that connectivity dropped to half its normal level in the early hours of yesterday morning in a manner consistent with a “centrally ordered mechanism of disruption… progressing over time as operators comply.” Some regions were hit worse than others; as the day progressed, overall connectivity levels picked up. The state broadcaster MRTV went off air, citing “communication difficulties,” and international outlets including the BBC reportedly went dark, too. (The top story in yesterday’s Global New Light of Myanmar, a print newspaper owned by the government, was about agri-tourism and tidal irrigation; state media in neighboring China, meanwhile, referred to the coup as a “major cabinet reshuffle.”) According to the New York Times, some local journalists went into hiding, fearing reprisals for their past reporting. Earlier today, Cape Diamond, a journalist in Myanmar who has recently written for outlets including the Washington Post and Vice, reported via Twitter that journalists in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital, had not yet been picked up by military officers and are “safe for now,” though they may be under surveillance.

New from CJR: The Courts Beat

Myanmar has a poor climate for press freedom. (Last year, it ranked one-hundred-and-thirty-ninth, out of one-hundred-and-eighty countries worldwide, on Reporters Without Borders’s press-freedom index.) In 2017, that climate came under a harsh global spotlight after Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, two Reuters journalists who unearthed shocking details of state complicity in a massacre of Rohingya villagers in Rakhine state, were arrested on bogus charges. They were finally freed, in May 2019, as part of a broader prisoner amnesty; international media-watchers heralded their release as a positive development, which it was—but, as E. Tammy Kim pointed out a few months later in a piece for CJR, dozens more journalists in Myanmar continued to face arrests and prosecutions, including for coverage of the Rohingya. “One highly visible victory,” she wrote, “may have served to mask dozens of defeats.”

Kim told the story of Swe Win, a journalist who was charged with criminal defamation for sharing an accurate news story about a nationalist extremist on Facebook. Also in 2019, the military filed a similar complaint against Ye Ni, an editor at The Irrawaddy newspaper, after it reported that soldiers opened fire on a Rakhine township. In early 2020, the military went after Reuters again, in connection with fresh reporting on deaths in Rakhine; meanwhile, Ko Nay Lin, the editor of the Voice of Myanmar, and Khaing Mrat Kyaw, the editor of Narinjara News, were both hit with terrorism charges after publishing interviews with representatives of a proscribed group. In April last year, Myanmar’s communications ministry ordered internet providers to block hundreds of websites; sixty-seven of them, including the Voice of Myanmar, were accused of spreading “fake news.” In May, Zaw Ye Htet, editor of the Dae Pyaw news agency, was sentenced to two years in prison for reporting a coronavirus death in Karen state. Just last month, the military filed libel cases against Ne Win San and Ma Hnin Nwe, of the Development Media Group, for reporting on the disappearance of rice supplies from a Rakhine village.

While the military bears great responsibility for Myanmar’s press climate, so, too, does Suu Kyi, the deposed civilian leader. Local journalists and observers told Kim that press freedom has gotten substantially worse since Suu Kyi was voted into office in 2016, replacing an interim government, established in 2010, that was not democratic but did allow for growth in the independent media sector. It wasn’t clear, Kim wrote, whether it was the military or Suu Kyi who drove the prosecutions of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, in particular, and the persecution of the Rohingya, in general—a pair of “chilling unknowns” that “spooked everyone in Myanmar’s press.” Swe Win told Kim that, in his view, the army drove the prosecutions and Suu Kyi went along with them, part of her broader, tricky obligation to balance civilian and military power within the government—but the Times reported that Suu Kyi was actually the “biggest obstacle” to the Reuters journalists’ release, and many observers have accused her of relishing, and not merely tolerating, the Rohingya crackdown. Suu Kyi remains popular domestically, but her once-saintly international reputation has cratered. As Hannah Beech, of the Times, wrote yesterday following Suu Kyi’s deposition, she has come to represent “two entirely different archetypes to two different audiences, domestic and foreign.” She “rebuffed international critics by claiming she was not a human-rights activist but rather a politician,” Phil Robertson, of Human Rights Watch, told Beech. “But the sad part is she hasn’t been very good at either.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Myanmar’s politics defy the easy, Manichean categorizations that have marked so much Western coverage of foreign dictatorships and backsliding democracies—not least in the pre-2016 case of Suu Kyi and Myanmar. The coup, clearly, is an immensely troubling development, and there’s still a lot we don’t know about how it will play out. “Everyone here is in a state of perpetual uncertainty,” Aye Min Thant, formerly of Reuters, tweeted earlier. “No one knows anything for sure, and there are intentional efforts to foster this environment.” Yesterday, a friend of Kim’s in Yangon messaged her with an update. “We’re okay,” the friend said, “but it’s back to life under the junta.”

Below, more on Myanmar and press freedom:


Other notable stories:

  • In a broadcast on Instagram Live yesterday, the Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke in detail about the terrifying ordeal of the insurrection, and revealed publicly that she is a survivor of sexual assault. “Folks tell us to move on, that it’s not a big deal, that we should forget what happened, even telling us that we should apologize. These are the same tactics of abusers,” she said. “Trauma compounds on each other.” Elsewhere, Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, lit into Marjorie Taylor Greene, his co-partisan in the House, for spreading “loony lies and conspiracy theories” that are “cancer for the Republican Party and our country.” And WITF, a radio station in Pennsylvania, pledged to incorporate tough language into their routine coverage of lawmakers who tried to overturn the election, as a permanent reminder of what they did.
  • The COVID Tracking Project—a collaborative initiative, hosted by The Atlantic, that has filled gaps in official pandemic data and proved a vital resource for officials, researchers, and journalists—will wrap up its work on March 7, the year anniversary of its founding. The project was only intended to last for a couple of weeks, but continued its activities in light of the persistent patchiness of federal data. “Substantial gaps and complexities remain” in the data, the project’s co-founders Erin Kissane and Alexis C. Madrigal write, but there is “persuasive evidence” that federal health agencies “are now both able and willing to take on the country’s massive deficits in public health data infrastructure, and to offer the best available data and science communication in the interim.”
  • A new report by Paul M. Barrett and J. Grant Sims, of NYU’s Stern Center, describes the claim that social media companies censor conservatives as “a falsehood with no reliable evidence to support it.” The authors conclude that “no trustworthy large-scale studies have determined that conservative content is being removed for ideological reasons or that searches are being manipulated to favor liberal interests,” and that “even anecdotal evidence of supposed bias tends to crumble under close examination.”
  • For CJR, Jaeah Lee profiles Nate Gartrell, a local courts reporter for the East Bay Times, in California, who finds himself increasingly overworked on an increasingly under-covered beat. “Like others in ever-shrinking newsrooms, Gartrell has learned to be judicious with his time. In a typical week, he averages fifteen stories,” Lee writes. “Often, it’s the subjects that Gartrell finds most important that receive the fewest clicks.”
  • WNYC named new hosts for two of its flagship shows: Michael Hill, previously of New Jersey’s PBS station, will host Morning Edition, and Sean Carlson will be the permanent host of All Things Considered, after filling in as a guest in recent months. WNYC also launched “Future of Black History,” a special series of the show United States of Anxiety that will examine “the complex, and sometimes painful, origins” of Black History Month.
  • Canada’s postal service suspended at least two carriers who refused to distribute copies of the Epoch Times, a pro-Trump newspaper tied to Falun Gong, a spiritual community that wants to take down China’s government. The paper mailed free promotional copies to residents in a number of Canadian provinces; the postal service said that it’s obligated to deliver legitimate mail irrespective of editorial content. Steven Zhou has more for Vice.
  • In the UK, Associated Newspapers settled a libel suit that Prince Harry brought against the company after one of its titles, the Mail on Sunday, published a story questioning the strength of Harry’s commitment to the British armed forces, which he most recently served as an honorary Marine. The Mail on Sunday, which publicly apologized late last year, agreed to pay “substantial damages.” Harry is donating the money to his charity.
  • Also in the UK, Archant, a local-news publisher, sold the New European—a paper that was launched as a temporary venture to oppose Brexit, but has outlasted that story—to a consortium made up of the paper’s management and high-profile investors including Mark Thompson, the former CEO of the New York Times, and Lionel Barber, the former editor of the Financial Times. Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton assessed its success.
  • And Britain’s Royal Television Society nominated CNN’s John King for its “network presenter of the year” award—the first time it has ever afforded such a distinction to an overseas broadcaster. King became a cult figure in the UK thanks to his coverage of the US election. The Guardian’s Archie Bland has more (with a cameo from a familiar face).

ICYMI: The debate about fixing America’s information ecosystem

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.