Soldiers and police keep watch behind makeshift barricades erected by protesters during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on March 5, 2021. (AFP)

Opinion: Myanmar’s military junta is killing press freedom

One year since a democracy-suspending coup, press freedom is dying in Myanmar. A military campaign of intimidation, censorship, arrests, and detentions of journalists has more recently graduated to outright killing, an escalation of repression that aims ultimately to stop independent media reporting on the junta’s crimes and abuses.

In January, military authorities abducted local news reporter Pu Tuidim shortly after he interviewed members of the anti-coup Chinland Defense Force armed group in the restive Chin State. Soldiers confiscated his laptop computer, used him as a captive human shield in a live-fire combat zone, and then summarily executed him, dumping his bound corpse in the muddy outskirts of a local village, his editor at the Khonumthung Media Group told CPJ.  

Pu Tuidim’s murder followed the killing of two other Myanmar journalists in December, including one independent photographer who was picked up for photographing an anti-coup silent protest in the commercial capital of Yangon, held at a military interrogation center, and then pronounced by a military hospital as dead without explanation to his family.

A third reporter, Sai Win Aung, was killed on Christmas Day in a military artillery attack in Kayin State while reporting on the plight of internally displaced people in border areas that have become full-blown war zones since the coup. His editor told CPJ it is unclear if he was targeted in the shelling attack, but the reporter had weeks earlier fled Yangon for the insurgent-controlled frontier region after coming under military surveillance for his news reporting.

Myanmar’s generals, already the target of Western sanctions for their rights abuses, have a cynical incentive to suppress reporting that exposes their daily assault on Myanmar’s people. The Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, an independent rights monitoring group based in Thailand, reported on January 28 that the junta has killed 1,499 and detained 8,798 since last year’s February 1 coup.

Those imprisoned include dozens of journalists, CPJ research shows, making Myanmar the world’s second-worst jailer of journalists in 2021, trailing only China, after having none in jail in 2020. The majority are being held on bogus charges under the penal code’s vague and broad Article 505(a), which effectively criminalizes critical news reporting as causing instability or purveying misinformation. Most were detained after reporting on anti-military street protests.  

The generals are reaching next for an online kill switch. New proposed cybersecurity legislation aims to make virtual private networks (VPNs) illegal, a bid to stop Myanmar citizens from accessing banned websites and social media including Facebook, which many news organizations, including small local language outfits in ethnic areas, use as their sole platform for posting news. The legislation also gives junta authorities arbitrary powers to access user data, ban content, and imprison regime critics.  

If passed, a near certainty without an elected legislature in place, the law will give the junta the legal tool it needs to roll back the press freedom gains achieved between 2012 and the coup, a period where hundreds of independent media outlets bloomed from the darkness of an earlier era of military dictatorship, when all broadcast media was soldier-controlled and all newspapers were forced to publish as weeklies to give censors time to cut their content.

Nothing more belies the junta’s claim that it is only holding power for an interregnum period to prepare for a return to democratic elections, originally in 2022, now supposedly in 2023, than its ongoing and intensifying assault on the free press – a crucial pillar in any functioning democracy that holds its leaders to account.

The effect of the military’s repression is seen clearly in the rising tide of journalists who are fleeing for their lives to face uncertain futures across the country’s borders with India and Thailand, in the growing number of once-vibrant news publications that have gone dark through shuttered bureaus, halted printing presses, and abandoned web sites and Facebook-hosted news pages.

That’s, of course, not to say the flame of press freedom has been completely extinguished in today’s benighted, military-run Myanmar. Tech-savvy reporters have launched upstart news publications that continue to defy bans, threats, and even the murder of their reporters to publish the news and keep the world informed of  abuses and atrocities that may be driving their nation towards full-scale civil war.

Myanmar’s journalists and independent news outlets have a long and storied history of evading military censorship to get out the news. The next chapter in the history is now being written as a new generation of undercover journalists risk their lives for exile-run and other unauthorized publications to report the news the junta is desperately trying to suppress. And therein lies the hope for a one-day revitalized democratic Myanmar.