A man in military fatigues and a face mask holding a cell phone in his hand looks at the camera.
A soldier uses a mobile phone in a vehicle outside Myanmar's Central Bank during a protest against the military coup, in Yangon, Myanmar, February 15, 2021. Journalists in Myanmar, Indian-controlled Kashmir, and Ethiopia say they have struggled to communicate during recent internet shutdowns. (Reuters)

Journalists struggle to work amid extended internet shutdowns in Myanmar, Ethiopia, Kashmir

By CPJ Africa and Asia Program Staff

Even a brief shutdown of the internet impedes the press from doing its job. But some disruptions last for months, severely undermining safety and access to information, CPJ has found. Recently, authorities have imposed such measures in Myanmar and Ethiopia amid serious crises.

India leads the world in internet shutdowns, accounting for 70 percent of the 155 disruptions around the world in 2020, Access Now recently reported. The vast majority of these impacted the region of Jammu and Kashmir, where disruptions have become the norm, according to Free Press Kashmir reporter Marouf Gazi. In 2019, CPJ documented how journalists in Kashmir struggled to work through a complete communications blackout. 

“[Authorities] don’t think twice about how the shutdown impacts people’s occupation or livelihood, let alone the impact on journalists and the news media,” Gazi told CPJ in a recent phone interview.

Marouf Gazi (Free Press Kashmir)

“Even print journalists are heavily dependent on the internet for our work — whether it is to use Google to search for information, communication through WhatsApp or simply emailing our news reports,” Gazi said. CPJ emailed Ajay Kumar Bhalla, secretary of India’s Home Ministry, and Nitin D. Wakankar, director general of the ministry’s press bureau, to request comment but received no response.

In April, CPJ spoke with journalists in Myanmar and Ethiopia to learn how they are doing their jobs amid political strife and violence. Security forces in Myanmar have killed more than 700 people in the aftermath of a military coup in Myanmar, according to the BBC. The United Nations has warned that sexual violence and extrajudicial killings reported during a six-month conflict between the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the former leadership of Ethiopia’s northern Tigray state, may amount to war crimes.

Aung Marm Oo, founder of the Development Media Group news agency, is normally based in Myanmar’s restive Rakhine state but was in hiding at the time of the interview due to a pending warrant for his arrest over his news reporting, which CPJ has previously documented. Maya Misikir is an Ethiopian freelancer based in Addis Ababa who recently returned from a trip to Tigray. Their interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Aung Marm Oo, founder, Development Media Group news agency, Myanmar

Following the February 1, 2021 coup, the military ordered a nationwide internet and telecoms shutdown, implementing social media blocks after some internet services were restored; CPJ subsequently reported a crackdown on the press, including multiple arrests. Mobile internet was blocked nationwide on military orders in March and April, according to Telenor Myanmar, one of the few local telecommunications providers. Myanmar’s Ministry of Information did not respond to CPJ’s emailed request for comment on the shutdown.

The recent coup has very much impacted our regular reporting activities. Our reporters and editors are now in hiding and our staff is concerned for their safety.

Most of our reporters in various townships of Rakhine use mobile data internet. [Editor’s note: The name of Rakhine state is disputed and Aung Marm Oo referred to it in the interview as Rakhine (Arakan).] Since mobile internet usage [was] blocked by the military junta, our reporters in different townships have found it really difficult to send their news stories and other data, including video files and photos, to DMG’s head office in Sittwe [the state capital].

It is a total blockage of mobile data in the northern cities and rural areas of Rakhine. It’s much slower than usual, though we can still use WiFi in Sittwe. It’s taking time to download any data, including video files and photos for our reporting, so we are not able to report in real time.

We often use USB drives and CDs to send data from the townships to our head office. That means our reporters must travel by public bus or other transportation because we don’t have any other way to send the information. We have used this tactic since the internet blockage in northern Rakhine during clashes between the Myanmar Army and insurgent Arakan Army in the past two years. [Editor’s note: Myanmar’s former, democratically elected government ordered restrictions on internet access in Rakhine and Chin states during a conflict between military forces and insurgents in June 2019, CPJ reported at the time. Media reports indicate the Rakhine shutdown was briefly lifted in February 2021.]

We have faced lots of challenges sending information. Currently, that means we have temporarily stopped publishing our bi-monthly Development News Journal. Moreover, we’ve found it difficult to upload videos and photos to Facebook and our website. We had more than 600,000 followers on Facebook for our Burmese page and almost 50,000 followers for the English version, [but] since the blockage of mobile data internet, we have lost more than 60% of our audience.

[Encrypted apps] are used for communications and sharing files with editors when possible. We feel we are not safe if we use other ways to communicate.

We feel the blockage is a human rights violation. The internet disruption has very much affected our daily reporting and the entire [DMG] news media outlet, not to mention the people’s right to information, freedom of expression and press freedom. These are challenging and difficult times for Rakhine state and all of Myanmar.

Maya Misikir, freelancer, Ethiopia

The internet is routinely cut off in Ethiopia, CPJ has noted, including a nationwide shutdown in June 2020. The internet has been disrupted in Tigray since November 2020, when conflict broke out in the regional state, according to media reports. Officials have blamed the ousted Tigray leadership for the disconnection and Ethio Telecom, the state-owned telecommunications monopoly, said in December that it was making repairs. In an email to CPJ in mid-April 2021, Billene Seyoum Woldeyes, a spokesperson for the Ethiopian prime minister’s office, said that the authorities did not cause the disruption and did not respond to a follow up question about why it had not been fixed. Ethio Telecom did not respond to CPJ’s social media message requesting comment about the ongoing problems.

Internet shutdowns are not rare in Ethiopia. Telecommunications [services] had been shut down in Tigray since the onset of open armed conflict. By the time I went to cover my story in March 2021, partial communications had been restored; calls and texts were working in the regional capital and surrounding areas, but not uniformly across the region. It remains unreliable to this day, with calls working on and off in other towns. Internet connectivity remains shut off. 

Maya Misikir (Zacharias Abubeker)

During the blanket internet shutdown [in June and July 2020], we managed to continue working on our stories through phone calls and making office visits [instead of sending emails]. By the end of the first week, we had contacts in a bank [who] were facilitating internet access for us, as banks were one of the few institutions that had been granted internet connectivity. Reporters would send all their questions [to] one person who made the trip to the bank to verify or download the necessary information. It definitely made our work more tedious. Things that were a mere click away would take a day or two to obtain.

Other difficulties include not being able to send pictures for the stories I was covering. Pictures can corroborate stories, especially where there is conflicting information. I would speak to people and get testimonies, but pictures were not an option. You would have to travel [in order to take photos] which requires more budget, more time, more resources – which [creates] more barriers. 

The newspaper I was working for at the time [Addis Fortune] had a print and an online version. We were able to do the weekly print version when our online version was halted. [But] the online version is not only a digital version of the newspaper, it includes an ongoing stream of news throughout the week – a podcast, a weekly YouTube discussion. All that had to be put on hold for the time. While we have thousands of subscribers for the newspaper, the online reach is in the hundreds of thousands across multiple social media platforms – its Twitter account alone has 143,000 followers. 

Knowing how to operate without internet access definitely teaches you alternative means of sourcing your information, or verifying it, so the sense of helplessness is less if it happens again. When I went to cover the story in Tigray, I knew there was no internet connection where I was heading so I downloaded all the files I thought I would need to refer to in interviews. 

[For digital security information about internet shutdowns, see CPJ’s safety note.]   

Reporting by Muthoki Mumo and Jonathan Rozen of CPJ’s Africa program, and Shawn W. Crispin and Kunal Majumder of CPJ’s Asia program.