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Journalists Work Clandestinely in Post-Coup Myanmar

Several members of a youth group hold a flash mob rally to protest against the military government of Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing in Pabedan township in Yangon, Myanmar, Nov. 30, 2021.
Several members of a youth group hold a flash mob rally to protest against the military government of Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing in Pabedan township in Yangon, Myanmar, Nov. 30, 2021.

Post-coup Myanmar has proven a difficult place for journalists to operate.

Ten months after the February coup that overthrew the elected government, journalists know they can be arrested without reason by the authorities. At the same time, they are often distrusted by the public who may see them as responsible for covering up the coup’s consequences.

Consequently, some now report from outside the country while others work in Myanmar but clandestinely.

"It is the worst situation in my 13 years’ experience of working as a photojournalist,” a person who has worked for an international photo agency in Yangon since 2008 said.

No place is safe

Shortly after the coup, the junta harassed, threatened and intimidated individual journalists. Since then, the regime has revoked news outlet publishing licenses -- nine so far.

Reporters are now afraid to work at their offices, and journalists say even working at home is not absolutely safe.

“Security forces can come to your front door and you can be arrested at any time,” a journalist working for a London-based international news agency said.

He also spoke to VOA on Nov. 22 about difficulties renting an apartment since the coup.

After the coup, his landlord asked him to move from the apartment in Yangon’s Sanchaung township because he is a journalist. He moved to another apartment, but a month later he was asked by his new landlord to move. He then moved to a third apartment.

“I didn’t disclose my job when I rented the apartment, but the landlord could find out in a short time because my face and my voice can be seen on daily news broadcasts,” he said, referring to his second landlord.

His current landlord, "is a staunch opponent of the military and has the courage to give us a place to live," the 36-year-old reporter said.

Many media groups relocated to Myanmar under the ousted elected government, which officially allowed foreign-based media outlets to open offices here, but the situation reversed after the coup. Many outlets ended their operations and left the country when the junta raided their offices and arrested reporters and editors. Only a handful of journalists remain in Myanmar.

"Yangon is more dangerous now," a young journalist, one of few locally-based journalists for a U.S.-based news agency, said. Security is tight and inspection and random checks are more frequent in Yangon because of constant explosions and attacks by anti-military forces, said the 26-year-old journalist.

He recently moved to a rural town and lies low. His organization has not used reporters’ bylines since the coup, he said.

“Furthermore, only a single reporter is assigned to communicate with military sources,” the journalist said. That reporter works in a safe zone in Myanmar in ethnic-controlled areas, the journalist said.

Nay Myo Linn, the founder of the news outlet Voice of Myanmar has struggled to continue to run the online media platform since being released from prison. He was arrested by the junta in April and charged with violating Section 505-A of Myanmar’s Penal Code, a section that can be used to penalize comments about the legitimacy of the coup or junta and carries a penalty of up to three years in prison.

“Fifty-eight articles published by VOM were considered as attempts to provoke the country and I was accused of using the term ’terrorist military regime,’” Nay Myo Linn, a former BBC correspondent, said.

In June, Nay Myo Linn was released from Mandalay's Ohbo Prison after the local police chief agreed to close the case. He said he does not know the exact reason for his release.

He then struggled to continue Voice of Myanmar’s operations, but some stringers fear arrest.

He said the whole Voice of Myanmar team must be very careful in reporting as they are under military surveillance.

“I stay at my home and run VOM. If you stay in Myanmar and continue working as a journalist, you cannot be afraid of being arrested,” said the father of two sons.

Struggling to report

Major problems facing journalists since the coup include lack of access to accurate information and news resources. Many reporters rely on mobile phones and social media rather than going into the field. Correspondents say, however, that speaking in ways that indicate they are journalists can lead to arrest.

"We have to be more careful when verifying information and more cautious not being deceived by a group or someone intentionally,” said a journalist with a London-based media organization.

The photo agency journalist said it is "extremely risky" taking photos with professional cameras.

“Nowadays, if a person is arrested at night, the next morning, family members could be told to retrieve the dead body. Our lives are not guaranteed if we are arrested,” the photojournalist said.

"Mostly, I take the risk of shooting with mobile phones, and sometimes I rent a cab and take photos from inside,” he added.

Salai Robert, a correspondent for Khonumthung Media Group based in Mizoram, in northeast India, and Kalay township in Myanmar’s Chin state, said he faces scarce sources and poor communication issues.

"People are very scared of speaking with us because of the oppression of military, and, also, state officials don’t accept requests for comment or information,” Robert said.

Robert said the junta has journalists under surveillance in Chin and has cut off internet services in all townships except the capital, Hakha. He said Chin-based media outlets are trying to get information out to the public by texting each other via mobile phones or Signal.

Another problem facing local journalists is public attitudes. Journalists say anti-military forces react badly to reports on activities of the military and its affiliates, and to interviews with those who are assumed to be pro-military.

Nay Myo Linn said he often receives criticism from both anti- and pro-military groups.

"The biggest challenge is trying to practice ethical journalism at this critical time. If we write about revolutionary forces, the military will arrest us. Pro-revolutionary forces also label us pro-military media while reporting on military matters. Anyhow, I determined to write balanced news,” he said.

In addition, journalists are forced to take steps for security reasons, such as avoiding going out unnecessarily and controlling their social media activities. Many, though, say they do not see these as a sacrifice but as precautionary measures allowing them to continue their work safely.

"I have written news from Mizoram before but living in a country is not the same as reporting from outside. That’s why I decided to stay and work here despite having several difficulties,” Robert said.