Aung Zaw, founder and editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy, told CPJ of fears of a media crackdown after Myanmar's February 2021 military coup. (The Irrawaddy)

Irrawaddy editor Aung Zaw speaks to fears of a post-coup media crackdown in Myanmar

On February 1, Myanmar military overthrew the country’s democratically elected government and imposed a year of emergency rule until new elections are held and democracy restored.

News reports have shown the coup has been met with spirited and widespread anti-military street protests, reportage the now-ruling military has tried to blackout through heavy handed measures including internet, social media, and TV news blocks, as documented by CPJ.

Aung Zaw, founder and editor-in-chief of the staunchly independent The Irrawaddy news group and a recipient in 2014 of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award, says reporters fear a more targeted media clampdown is imminent.

In an email interview, Aung Zaw tells CPJ how his reporters are coping with the restrictions and threats, and how The Irrawaddy is preparing for a possible more severe military clampdown on the press in the days ahead. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How has the coup impacted The Irrawaddy’s ability to gather and disseminate the news? 

We were covering extensively the coup rumors and the preceding tensions. Many of us believed it would not happen after all the democratic political progress made since 2010. So it was devastating to learn about the coup. We fear the country is going back to the Stone Age. We are witnessing the full circle of history, from coup to democracy to coup again.

Our team was already affected by the COVID-19 restrictions in place. Now with the coup, they are impacted even more as they need to be cautious of the pro-military people who may target them. 

Yet our editorial team continues and is covering the ongoing news tirelessly. Our work now is even more crucial and important. Some of our reporters and journalists fear arrest if a crackdown takes place. Some have been keeping a low profile. 

Has the coup regime’s internet, telecoms, and social media blocks significantly hindered your news operations? 

The communications shutdown hindered our operations initially as all our operations are now digital. We had to find ways to get the news out, a reminder of the old days when we worked from exile.

Phone lines are not safe anymore. [Local telecom operator] Telenor is holding out but it may be only a matter of time before its operational license is revoked if the military deems it necessary for a complete blackout. 

We have shifted all our communications to Signal for now and use VPN (virtual private network) software. We are also taking precautions to keep our servers safe and secure.

Our digital-IT team is re-examining what additional security we will need if military hackers are trolling us. 

We are very much aware that the military has learned from neighboring countries how to muzzle the press, develop regressive cyber laws, and use cyber-spying technology and equipment, possibly purchased from Israel, Russia, and China. 

The flow of information is crucial now more than ever. Credible and verifiable information is needed for people and their civil disobedience movement. Independent media can play an important role to connect with people outside the country, too. 

Many are seeking Thai SIM cards which operate in Myanmar for now. But in the long run, we need to consider how we can have secure flows of information if a blackout is imposed in the near future, which day by day is becoming a possibility.

What is the general mood of journalists at present? Have any of your journalists come under direct threat since the coup? 

Many are preparing for the inevitable. It is not a question of “if,” but “when” the military tightens their grip. 

Just two days before the coup, one of our female reporters was attacked by pro-military thugs. She had to be taken to hospital for medical attention as her right eye area was injured and badly swollen. 

While there is no direct threat as of now and today (February 12, 2021), it is lingering and becoming a bigger possibility day by day.

We do not rule out there is already digital surveillance of our reporters and journalists, including senior team members, not to mention military social media trolling and stalking.  

Is there a sense a media crackdown is imminent after the junta consolidates its political control? 

Many of us, including myself and our team, worry that a media crackdown is imminent.

We are aware that new cyber laws are being considered. They have been drafted and may soon be introduced to silence the people’s voices, the civil disobedience movement, and the media. In other words, any voice that is not pro-military or praising the military. If so, it will be a real setback to all the progress made so far in the last 10 years.

The junta is focused on consolidating its hold on the public for now, subjugating the protests and their leaders. After that, they will try to control the media to ensure their own political narrative is dominant: “Trumpet a lie so many times, that it sounds like the truth.”  

If so, do you think the regime may target The Irrawaddy? Why or why not?

The Irrawaddy is a brand that draws attention from powerful leaders, including from the establishment and the military. We were targeted and under watch in the past. We have been and will always remain a target of the military. 

We were in exile previously, from where we maintained our editorial independence and critical reporting. When we started our operations from Yangon in 2013 onwards, we kept that stance and maintained it till now. It is depressing and sad to see the press freedom Myanmar’s people and reporters enjoyed is now in serious danger.

While the future is very bleak, we are not giving up. Our reporting team is prepared for the worst and anticipating the worst-case scenario. But we have to keep doing our jobs and keep information flowing until the last minute. We will not fail our readers, inside and outside the country.

New junta leader Min Aung Hlaing said, “We will have a multi-party election and we will hand the power to the one who wins in that election.” I don’t think he can build democracy through an illegitimate coup. Our message to him: “Let us do our jobs and be courageous to face criticism.”

What type of restrictions do you fear the coup regime might try to impose on journalists?

COVID-19 provided the military with a good excuse to impose restrictions on movement across the country. 

They are continuing to use that as an excuse to clamp down on pro-democracy protesters, using pandemic law-breaking and supposed threats to national unity and security as excuses to crack down. 

We do not rule out the future possibility of digital stalking, trolling, mobile blocks, bank and financial blocking of money, and the use of thugs for intimidation against media. 

They could also impose new rules and regulations on media and telecommunications which will completely restrict journalists from doing their jobs. 

What are your contingency plans if there is a media crackdown?

Our contingency plan is to ensure the continuity of our reporting. We plan to have our team dispersed to any location where they feel safe and work from there as we are now a digital media. 

We are doing our best to ensure that they have adequate resources to stay at a safe location. We have not ruled out the shifting of our operations out of the country, but we want to continue work inside the country. 

The team is working 24/7 while keeping our journalism, professionalism, and ethics intact. They are the heroes of Myanmar’s media.