When Thomas Kean moved to Myanmar in 2007, he didn’t expect to stay for almost 15 years, or that he would become editor-in-chief of the prominent news outlet Frontier Myanmar.
As a graduate of Australia’s Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Kean first came to Yangon to work for the Myanmar Times.
“I knew so little about the country and the context that I had no expectation of working there longer than a year,” Kean told VOA. “I thought it seemed like a really interesting opportunity to see what the country was like.”
Over the next 15 years, Kean — who joined Frontier Myanmar in 2016 — witnessed dramatic changes, including to the country’s media and political environment. Strict censorship directives were eased during the fledgling moves to a democracy, only to be replaced with arrests and repression when the military seized power in a February 2021 coup.
Relatively few journalists still work in Myanmar, and those who do operate at great risk to their safety. Since the coup, 159 have been arrested, including three from Frontier Myanmar. At least 59 are still in custody, according to data from the Myanmar Journalists Network.
Kean left Myanmar in August 2021 and is now based in Melbourne, Australia. After more than six years as Frontier Myanmar’s editor-in-chief, he stepped aside in September and is now the magazine’s editor-at-large.
In an interview with VOA, Kean reflected on the changes for Myanmar’s media environment and the risks those still inside take to report the news.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VOA: What was Myanmar’s press freedom environment like when you started working there?
Kean: It was really demoralizing. But I persisted because I built good relationships with colleagues. A lot of journalists at the Myanmar Times were committed to what they were trying to do in a difficult environment.
It was an interesting challenge. You wouldn’t pursue stories that were so off limits that you knew they would be censored, but you also didn’t want to just write stories that were so anodyne that they would obviously pass the censorship board.
VOA: Are there any examples of those kinds of stories that stand out?
Kean: A colleague and I went to a copper mine in Monywa in mid-2008. We rode a motorbike around the fringes, and stumbled across people who were trolling [searching] through the tailings and had an artisanal copper mine business. It was an interesting story, and I was disappointed that it was censored.
But on other occasions stories weren’t censored, and you’d go, “OK, maybe that’s an area that’s not so sensitive to the military.” You’d learn from it, week to week. But also the censors were so erratic, and that was one of the frustrations. Something permitted one week would be censored the next.
VOA: How did you witness press freedom evolve?
Kean: Before the 2010 general election, things started to change unexpectedly. For whatever reason, the military felt they needed to allow some coverage of the candidates to lend credibility to the election. That opened up the possibility of speaking to and writing about political dissidents. It was an improvement.
From there, it required media organizations to push the boundaries to see what was possible. And slowly the censorship board relaxed control, week by week. Then in August 2012, they lifted pre-publication censorship completely.
VOA: What happened to press freedom following the February 2021 military coup?
Kean: Aside from asking what’s happening, the first question the morning of the coup was, “What is the military going to do to the media?”
Other media organizations immediately left the country, and I totally understand that. If you’re reporting in Myanmar now, the military is gunning for you.
We did that for a couple weeks, and we didn’t get shut down. But by late March it became too dangerous for journalists to work on the streets. The protest movement was becoming more violent. There was obviously suspicion from security forces. But protesters were also suspicious of reporters asking questions.
VOA: Frontier took a break from operating last fall. Can you talk about that decision?
Kean: We stopped operating in October 2021 to make it easier for staff to quietly leave if they wanted. My family and I left in August 2021 due to visa problems.
Our journalists were having to move around regularly to feel safe. There wasn’t really an advantage to being on the ground, so we decided it was better for them to work from a relatively safe environment outside the country.
The plan was to begin operating again in December, but that month one of our journalists was detained by the military in Yangon.
We waited until he was released in late December before we started operating again in January.
VOA: How has operating outside Myanmar presented challenges to reporting?
Kean: It’s hard to say how much of the challenge is from reporting outside the country and how much is just from the terrible political situation.
Our journalists can get in touch with sources from outside the country. The problem is that they’re just terrified to talk at all, even off the record.
As journalists, we don’t want to use pseudonyms or anonymous sources. But at least half of our sources are anonymous now. It’s not something we want to do, but in this environment, what’s the alternative? If you were a person on the ground in Yangon now, why would you talk to a journalist?
VOA: Do you view Frontier and independent Myanmar media in general as part of the opposition against the military?
Kean: Being a journalist and being a media organization that reports independently on the situation in Myanmar does, in a way, make you part of a resistance to the coup because your values and what you stand for are completely anathema to the regime.
Independent media are still playing a really important role in Myanmar.