In this May 12, 2021, photo, anti-coup protesters march during a demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar. Journalists covering such protests have faced arrest. (AP Photo)

How Myanmar became the world’s second-worst jailer of journalists

Myanmar has catapulted in the rankings of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ annual census of jailed journalists, the repressive upshot of a democracy-suspending February 1 coup that saw authorities suppress news coverage of their harsh clampdown on anti-military protesters.

At least 26 journalists were imprisoned in Myanmar for their reporting as of December 1, compared with none behind bars under an elected government in 2020, making the now military-ruled Southeast Asian nation the second worst jailer of journalists, after China.

Several of those held in pre-trial detention face charges under Article 505(a), a vague anti-state provision that broadly penalizes incitement and the dissemination of “false news” with maximum three-year prison sentences.

The regime detained scores of journalists while they were covering pro-democracy, anti-coup street protests, only to release them in broad prisoner amnesties after being held for several months. At least four of the freed journalists had earlier been convicted and harshly sentenced under 505(a).   

Among them was American journalist Danny Fenster, managing editor of Myanmar Frontier who was arrested at Yangon International Airport in May. After months in pre-trial detention, he was sentenced to 11 years in prison on three separate criminal charges including under 505(a) in November. He was released and deported to the U.S. days later.   

The actual number of jailed journalists in Myanmar may be much higher than CPJ’s tally. Many news organizations are reluctant to identify their detained freelancers, stringers, and other non-staff reporters they rely on for news, photographs, and video, due to concerns they could face harsher penalties if they are found to be associated with their news outlets.

Interactive map and more regional analysis of CPJ’s 2021 data

They have grave cause for concern: Hanthar Nyein and Nathan Maung, reporters with the local Kamayut Media, were both allegedly abused while interrogated in detention after their arrests on March 8, Maung, an American national, recounted to CPJ in an interview after his release in mid-June. “When I keep speaking about these experiences to the world, they keep holding Hanthar as a hostage,” Maung told CPJ by email in December.   

Several former journalists have also been detained, according to data compiled by the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners Burma (AAPPB), a Myanmar-focused Thailand based rights organization. CPJ was unable to confirm the circumstances around many of the ex-reporters’ arrests and thus they are not included in the census.

Myanmar’s Ministry of Information did not respond to CPJ’s emailed request for comment on the government’s actions against the press.

Journalists also faced harassment and prosecution under the elected rule of Aung San Suu Kyi, who famously defended the lengthy imprisonment on trumped-up charges of two Reuters reporters for their reporting on human rights abuses against ethnic minority Rohingya by security forces.

However, independent media were at least allowed to operate in the open under Suu Kyi. Now, editors and journalists told CPJ they believe the junta’s jailing of journalists is the front edge of a wider campaign to ban independent reporting and restore the harsh media censorship seen under previous authoritarian military regimes. 

“With my journalists in prison, it is difficult to gather news and information,” Zay Tai, chief editor of Kanbawza Tai News, a Shan State-based news outlet with three journalists held behind bars when CPJ conducted its census. “We are worried that those in prison will be persecuted if we report freely from the outside. There is no freedom of the press anymore,” he told CPJ via messaging app. 

Several editors who communicated with CPJ, some of them in hiding to avoid potential arrest, requested that their detained reporters not be identified as their contributors. Some are affiliated with news organizations that have had their operating licenses revoked by the junta since the coup.

Dozens of Myanmar journalists were in hiding from arrest warrants issued in retaliation against their news reporting activities, according to AAPPB data provided to CPJ.

An unknown but growing number of others have fled the country into exile, including in neighboring India and Thailand, to avoid arbitrary arrest and imprisonment at home, editors and journalists told CPJ.

The Democratic Voice of Burma, an independent local media group whose reporters have been detained, sentenced, and released since the coup, is among those reporting from exile.

“The military regime thinks they can hide their wrongdoing by threatening and arresting independent journalists,” DVB chief editor and CPJ International Press Freedom Award winner Aye Chan Naing said by email. “They never succeeded in the past decades and they never will.”