*By Phil Thornton
Six of the many journalists detained since the beginning of Myanmar’s coup on February 1. Credit: Facebook
Myanmar’s military has intensified its efforts to dismantle the country’s independent media and to block journalists’ ability to work. Media covering the country’s nationwide protests told IFJ, ‘legal’ restrictions, harassment, arrests and increased violence by the military is intended to stop credible information getting out to the public.
A look at the front page of the military’s sponsored Global New Light of Myanmar on Wednesday, March 10, confirmed the coup leaders latest attack on independent media outlets. The licenses of Myanmar Now, Mizzima Media, Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), 7 Day News and Khit Thit Media were all revoked from March 8. The GNLM said the five media outlets were “banned from publishing or broadcasting” or using any kind of media or technology platforms.
The GLNM stated the coup leader’s appointed State Administration Council had given the authority to the Ministry of Information to revoke the licences of the five independent media outlets – who are deemed to “cover news that affect the rule of law and security of the people and support those who commit high treason…in accordance with Article 419 and 420 of the Constitution.”
DVB production director, Toe Zaw Latt, told the IFJ: “We’re banned from any reporting on any platform, they want to shut us up.” Like many journalists spoken to for this article, Toe Zaw Latt confirmed he was concerned at the level of violence being used against protesters and reporters.
“They know where we live, where our families live, where we work and what we do. There are roadblocks, use of ‘live’ ammunition, stun grenades, tear gas and nighttime raids to arrest people. I can’t go back to my home. I have to keep moving from place to place. This has reduced journalists’ ability to ‘live’ report.”
Toe Zaw Latt said what happened to DVB journalist, Kaung Myat Hlaing, could happen to any reporter. Kaung Myat Hlaing managed to live-stream, from his first-floor balcony, as police fired shots in the street below before entering his own building and arresting him. He remains detained in the army compound, after an admission to hospital for injuries sustained during his arrest. He has been charged for making public statements to cause problems under section 505a of the country’s penal code.
Despite the ban and arrests, DVB continue to broadcast from a third country, but the revocation of the licenses of the five media outlets has meant many journalists are now without paid work.
Aye Win, (not real name) said the ability to keep working under pressure from the military and its security forces is unnerving.
“We have to move our office, keep a low profile, stop using our names, our voice and can’t show our face. Trains and buses have stopped. Cars are searched at roadblocks for incriminating materials. At night soldier’s smash cars that are in their way. We live with a curfew and internet and phone restrictions – our daily life has gone.”
The military’s decision to move Light Infantry Divisions 33 and 77 into protest areas has worried journalists. The brutal reputation of LID 33 was earned in the killing and displacement of Rohingya people in Rakhine State and against ethnic Kachin in 2017. LID 77 notoriously turned their guns on unarmed monk protestors in 2007.
Reporters told IFJ that soldiers and police are being bussed into areas to replace local units who would have difficulty going against people they knew. One said: “They’ve brought in special forces such as LID 33 and 77, snipers and we have seen soldiers swapping their uniform for police uniforms.”
A senior officer with an ethnic armed organization explained to the IFJ that LID 33 and LID 77 are understaffed and their reputation as an elite counter insurgency force under the direct orders of the Commander-in-Chief, Ming Aung Hlaing, is not as good as it sounds.
“They might be tough when fighting unarmed villagers. We hear their morale is low and they don’t want to fight anymore, but they have no choice as they are under strict orders and we know they are using drugs.”
The ethnic officer said the international community should be spending their money to encourage splits in the military if they wanted to see genuine change in Myanmar and not waste it on human rights trainings.
“I don’t know names, but we hear some officers have been arrested. It is possible they could split, but it would need to be large if it is to count.”
A number of media outlets, including Mizzima and Myanmar Now, had their offices raided by truck loads of soldiers. Despite being unoccupied, the soldiers smashed and thrashed their way through the offices in what many journalists saw as an attempt to intimidate journalists.
Phil Robertson, the deputy asia director for Human Rights Watch, said in a media statement the banning of the five outlets “is clearly part of a much larger military junta assault on freedom of the press and the ability of journalists to do their jobs without harassment, intimidation or arrest.”
He notes that since the coup began on February 1, “the junta has detained at least 34 journalists, and some are still being held without charge.” HRW concluded that the “attacks on the media are a transparent attempt to suppress news of people’s widespread opposition to military rule.”
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an independent organization founded and run by former political prisoners, reported as of March 9, that 2,008 people had been arrested. It also accused the military of using torture against the detained, often resulting in death. It said: “Torture is a tactic of this military junta in conjunction with arrests. The recent deaths of two NLD members during detention has displayed their use of inhumane torture, the safety and dignity of these detainees is a matter of grave concern.”
AAPP said on its website, the military’s targeting of the media “is aimed to conceal human rights violations and to weaken communication channels between free media and the public. In addition to weakening the momentum of the peaceful protests.” AAPP pointed out the targeting and “repression is also a signal to threaten the remaining free media.”
AAPP explained the banning of the five media outlets “is not in compliance with domestic law, Article 354 of the 2008 Constitution or international law. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and Article 19(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) protects the right of freedom of press and freedom of expression.”
Kyaw Win, who has worked as a journalist both in-country and in exile, explained to IFJ that he fears the military will increase its campaign of misinformation and fuel divisions within the community.
“They will encourage division between ethnic groups who feared ‘Burmanization’ of their lands and culture. They will ‘weaponize’ this and will massage divisions. It only takes a spark for this to work. They will tell Bamar protestors, ‘look the ethnic armed groups do nothing to help you’.”
Kyaw Win said, with the country’s media muzzled, it would be difficult getting “real information gathered and published to inform people…if there’s no real information they’ll fill the void with misinformation – that worries me.” He says the country is now at a crossroads.
“Buses and trains are not running, roads are blocked, it’s hard to go to stores or markets. Shelves are getting bare, teashops are raided, people are arrested in vicinity of protests, slingshots used at nighttime to break windows and indiscriminate beating of people – daily life is disrupted. The military are masters at causing chaos and confusion until it gets too hard for foreign governments and media to follow.”
A report by Reuters said the military junta had hired a former Israeli military intelligence official at US$2 million to represent and lobby for them. The story explains, “Ari Ben-Menashe and his firm, Dickens & Madson Canada, will represent Myanmar’s military government in Washington, as well as lobby Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel and Russia, and international bodies like the United Nations, according to a consultancy agreement.”
Kyaw Win pointed out to the IFJ that the military’s expensive Western-based lobbyist would work to ‘soften’ the military’s power grab.
“This is an attempt to misinform…muddy the waters and discredit reliable information. At least 70 protesters have been murdered so far and since the coup on February 1st at least 1,939 people arrested.”
Now with independent media outlets banned by the Ministry of Information, journalists are without paid work and many are forced to hide in fear of arrest. Toe Zaw Latt said all the journalists he’s spoken to are scared – and for good reason.
“I’m scared, the military terrify us. Imagine what they’d do to us if we are arrested. Bash us and torture us, but we have to keep reporting. We want it to end. But we’re scared to go back to the bad days when the military controlled every aspect of our lives…I don’t want to go back to that. Being watched all the time by MI and special branch…it’s not the way we want to live.”
*Phil Thornton is an adviser for the International Federation of Journalists in South East Asia.
This article first appeared on IFJ on 11 March, 2021.