The Media Today

Myanmar’s military junta slaughters protesters and press freedom 

April 9, 2021

In early February, in the days after Myanmar’s military overthrew the elected government, E. Tammy Kim spoke, for CJR, with Swe Win, the editor of Myanmar Now, a news outlet based in Yangon. Kim first encountered Swe Win in 2019, when he was enmeshed in a long running defamation case; he was subsequently shot in the leg, apparently at the directive of military leaders, and decided to go into exile. When the coup took place, he wasn’t in Myanmar. He instructed his colleagues on the ground to evacuate the newsroom and stay with family or friends, but some staffers quickly went back to work to cover burgeoning protests. “It would be a shame if we missed the entire public opposition,” Swe Win told Kim. “It would be psychologically devastating to all of us—we’d feel very irresponsible—so I put half the team back at work. But still, we’re in disarray. They’re still grappling with the trauma of the coup.” He also spoke with donors about opening a newsroom outside Myanmar.

Journalists in Myanmar have been grappling not only with trauma, but with uncertainty; initially, the military did not directly target the press, though it did shut off internet access in parts of the country, and some broadcasters went off air. As Kyaw Hsan Hlaing and Emily Fishbein reported for CJR, things soon got much worse. The day after CJR published Kim’s interview with Swe Win, the junta ordered reporters not to call it a junta, and also sought to ban the words “regime” and “coup.” In early March, authorities raided the newsroom of Myanmar Now, seizing documents and electronic equipment. They revoked the site’s license to operate, and did the same to four other independent newsrooms: Mizzima (which was also raided), 7 Day News, Democratic Voice of Burma, and Khit Thit Media. Officials charged another news site, The Irrawaddy, under an Orwellian security law criminalizing reporting that, in the eyes of the state, could encourage soldiers to mutiny—marking the first time the law has been wielded against a whole news organization, rather than an individual journalist. Every newspaper not run by the state has ceased printing. Internet restrictions are getting harsher; yesterday, according to the Associated Press, following a clampdown on social media and mobile data, fiber broadband started flickering out, too. And officials in some areas have used loudspeakers to order residents to hand over their satellite TV dishes—and with them their remaining access to international news channels.

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Then there’s the physical violence. Soldiers have shot and wounded at least three photojournalists, including Ko Htet Myat Thu and U Si Thu, who believes that a military gunman was aiming for his head. (He was hit in the hand as he took a photo.) Around sixty journalists have been arrested, including Ma Kay Zon Nway, of Myanmar Now; Ko Zaw Zaw and Ko Than Htike Aung, of Mizzima; Thein Zaw, of the AP; Aung Thura, of the BBC; and Robert Bociaga, who was on assignment for the German press agency dpa. The AP published a video showing police putting Thein Zaw in a chokehold; Bociaga was beaten by soldiers. Both have subsequently been freed, as has Aung Thura. (Bociaga was deported.) But thirty or so reporters remain behind bars, and many of them, including Ma Kay Zon Nway, face lengthy potential sentences under the mutiny law. This week, a number of journalists faced preliminary hearings in their cases. One of them, a freelance video journalist named Aung Ko Latt, has tested positive for COVID-19 since his arrest. His hearing coincided with the birth of his son.

Reporters who are not already in Myanmar have struggled to gain access. Ari Ben-Menashe—a lobbyist hired by the junta who has called coverage of the coup “nonsense”—recently brokered entry for a CNN team led by Clarissa Ward, and for Allegra Mendelson, a reporter with Southeast Asia Globe; they were transported around the country under armed guard, then taken to meet with officials and others who told them flimsy tales of protesters perpetrating abuse. The visit “became a clumsy attempt by the regime to remake its global image,” Mendelson writes. “Escorts monitored our every move, with cameras and phones raised to record us. They even tried following us into bathrooms at times.” Locals nonetheless made their views heard, banging on pots and pans as the foreign reporters passed, and in some cases approaching them on the street, despite the nearby soldiers; at least eight people were arrested for talking to CNN—all of whom, the network says, have since been released. Speaking on air yesterday, Ward hailed them as “extraordinarily brave”—but CNN has been criticized, by some regional media-watchers, for exposing them to danger. Such critics also accused CNN of “parachute” and “celebrity white savior” journalism, and, as Vice put it, of glossing over “the tireless work of plenty of journalists on the ground in Myanmar as well as elsewhere in Asia.”

Ward is now back in London. The journalists on the ground are still there, and in an increasingly dire situation. Yesterday, security forces killed at least eleven protesters in the town of Taze, taking the civilian death toll since the coup above six hundred, according to one widely-cited count. Richard C. Paddock, of the New York Times, reports that despite the extreme danger of protest, journalists are increasingly looking to blend in with the demonstrators, and have stopped visibly identifying themselves as press after doing so made them targets; many, Paddock writes, “also keep a low profile by not receiving credit for their published work and avoiding sleeping in their own homes.” And the line between citizens and journalists—always and everywhere, to some extent, imaginary—has blurred professionally, too, with citizen journalists, or “CJs” as they have become widely known, helping under-pressure reporters document the carnage. “They are targeting professional journalists so our country needs more CJs,” Ma Thuzar Myat, who is among their number, told Paddock. “I know I might get killed at some point for taking a video record of what is happening. But I won’t step back.”

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Below, more on press freedom around the world:

  • Myanmar: In mid-February, Swe Win and Kim spoke with Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, about the situation for the press in Myanmar on our podcast, The Kicker. For more listening on the crisis, Hannah Beech, of the Times, spoke this week on the paper’s Daily podcast about the insular culture of Myanmar’s military and the case of a ten-year-old girl who was shot and killed by a soldier. “I think what this has done, more than anything, is to harden the resolve of people in Myanmar to fight the military regime,” Beech said, “because a group of soldiers and a group of policemen that do this — that are given orders to execute children—is something they cannot stand.”
  • Russia: On Wednesday, a court in Russia fined Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a broadcaster funded by the US government, seventy-thousand dollars for failing to label itself as a foreign agent. RFE/RL’s leadership has decried the ruling as an effort to force its reporters to stop working in the country; Reuters has more. Meanwhile, Russia’s internet censors extended their slowdown of access to Twitter as they seek to force the company to delete old tweets that they say encourage criminality. The censors had previously threatened to ban Twitter altogether. The Financial Times has more details.
  • Syria: Ben Fox, Eric Tucker, and Matthew Lee, of the AP, have previously-unreported details of talks that senior US officials held last year with their counterparts in Syria. The discussions had been aimed at freeing American hostages including Austin Tice, a journalist who was captured in the country in 2012. According to the AP, “the trip was ultimately fruitless, with the Syrians raising a series of demands that would have fundamentally reshaped Washington’s policy toward Damascus” and offering “no meaningful information on the fate and whereabouts of Tice and others.”
  • Northern Ireland: On Wednesday, amid flaring sectarian violence in Belfast, two masked men attacked Kevin Scott, a photographer with the Belfast Telegraph. He was not seriously hurt, but his camera was destroyed. “At the age of 26 and working as a press photographer for the Belfast Telegraph for the past nine years, I am no stranger to rioting on the streets,” Scott wrote, of the attack. “Thankfully, I did not have to cover the tragedy and turmoil of the Troubles as some of my colleagues had to, but I have covered enough incidents to understand the dangers and risks that are involved.”
  • NFT: This week, Forbes sold a version of its latest cover as an NFT, or non-fungible token, for more than three hundred and thirty thousand dollars. The magazine is donating the proceeds from the sale to the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Women’s Media Foundation. (Yesterday, my colleague Mathew Ingram explored the future of NFTs in the media industry in this newsletter.)

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.