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'Zero Tolerance' For Myanmar's Free Press

A ground sign in support of US journalist Danny Fenster reads "welcome home!" after he was freed and on his way home after spending nearly six months in jail in military-ruled Myanmar, on Nov. 15, 2021 in West Bloomfield, Michigan.
A ground sign in support of US journalist Danny Fenster reads "welcome home!" after he was freed and on his way home after spending nearly six months in jail in military-ruled Myanmar, on Nov. 15, 2021 in West Bloomfield, Michigan.

Internet blackouts, arrests, random searches. Military rule has made journalism in Myanmar risky, with many media outlets going underground or into exile.

As veteran journalist Aye Chan Naing says, "It's zero-tolerance when it comes to independent media."

Without journalists as witnesses, it is harder to verify rumors of rights abuses and crimes said to be taking place, especially in more remote regions.

Increasingly, the country's media are relying on citizen journalists for information.

The risks are great, but people like Haru, who swapped medical studies for reporting, are determined to get the story out.

The Yangon-based citizen journalist, who asked to be identified by an assumed name, helps news outlets confirm details on clashes and fighting.

But with limited internet access, she told VOA that atrocities could be worse than reported.

"In some rural areas, there might be some unreported crimes because of the internet blackout. We couldn't also get photo evidence to verify the news. This is the main issue we're facing," she said.

For editors of established Myanmar media outlets who moved operations away from Yangon, or even outside the country, citizen journalists and freelance contributors like Haru are an important asset.

"I still believe journalists are a big force to take down the military junta. So the world can hear, the world can see and help us," said Aung Htun, from the informal multimedia network Burma VJ.

With a team of about a dozen, Burma VJ is one of several outlets to decentralize its operations in an effort to keep them safe.

Some of its journalists were briefly detained shortly after the coup. Since then, none have appeared on wanted lists – something Aung Htun puts down to Burma VJ's discreet nature.

"We all stay low and continue to work, avoiding unnecessary risks," Aung Htun said. He is still in Myanmar, but because of the security situation declined to say where.

In many ways, the past year is a return to how the longtime reporter worked a decade ago, when Myanmar was last under military rule.

"I have to stay low, discreet to remain and continue the work in the country," Aung Htun said.

Aung Htun was a youth member of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Ky's National League for Democracy party in the early 2000s, before becoming a reporter.

He was briefly detained covering protests known as the Saffron Revolution in 2007, and went into exile, returning only in 2014.

Aung San Suu Ky, who was detained during the coup, is now serving a six-year sentence on a raft of charges from the junta, with a trial on alleged election fraud scheduled for later this month.

While outlets like Burma VJ rely more on citizen journalists, it's a process that brings its own problems.

The threat of military informants means taking extra precautions to verify if a new source is trustworthy and to evade tracking techniques, Aung Htun said.

Often colleagues who live close to Myanmar's borders connect with new sources: in the event that military track the communications, they have an escape route ready.

News blackout

Just as big a challenge is getting around Myanmar's internet blocks.

In the first few hours of last February's coup, the country was plunged into a communications blackout.

Internet access was blocked for 72 consecutive nights and online access has been limited since, according to Top10VPN, a company that reviews and researches open internet.

At the time, the junta said the actions were needed to ensure stability.

But Tom Andrews, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Myanmar, said military rulers are trying to stop information getting out.

"The military junta of Myanmar are like mushrooms. They thrive in the darkness," Andrews told VOA.

As well as patchy internet access, journalists risk being stopped and searched, or detained.

"The military has been patrolling around major cities, they have much more sophisticated security systems," Aung Htun told VOA. "Their eyes are everywhere."

The spot checks make it risky to store data on phones and have changed how journalists operate.

Burma VJ reporters often use messaging services with end-to-end encryption to communicate safely.

"Don't keep any important data in your phone, don't go out to town without any specific reason or purpose, avoid the petrol [station], or places of the routine checks." Aung Htun listed off the measures.

"Most importantly," he said. "Don't get caught."

It's advice worth bearing in mind. Myanmar's jailing record shot up in 2021.

The country, which started the year with zero journalists in custody, ended up the second worst jailer of reporters globally.

Reporting ASEAN, a monitoring group in Southeast Asia, says 120 journalists were arrested in the past year and 46 are still detained.

Most are held under Section 505A of the penal code: causing fear, spreading fake news or crimes against the government.

Military spokesperson Major General Zaw Min Tun denied media are targeted for their coverage.

"There is no reason to arrest, charge or jail media personnel if they do their media job. However, if those media personnel encourage or instigate or involve in terrorist's activities, definitely action would be taken as criminals," he told VOA Burmese.

For Democratic Voice for Burma (DVB) chief editor Aye Chan Naing, the past year under military rule has meant a return to exile for the first time since 2012.

Under the last military rule, DVB used shortwave radio to deliver independent news into Myanmar.

When the country transitioned to civilian leadership, Aye Chan Naing helped establish DVB in Myanmar.

Now, a decade on, he is back in Norway and several staff are in hiding.

"There is no clear guideline, so you are taking lots of risk of being arrested and anything that you write, any truth, it's off-limits," he told VOA in January.

DVB is one of five media outlets to have licenses revoked by the junta.

Still, they report online, publishing text and video reports with the help of a vast network of citizen journalists. The media outlet has seen a 6.5 million increase in social media audience across YouTube and Facebook, Naing said.

But, Naing says, if the military imposes a total internet shutdown, it will be a major blow.

"What I worry is they will totally black out the internet. The use of the internet has become expensive," he said, adding that fewer people can afford it. "If they crack down on satellite dishes, they could put a whole blackout on the country."

Margaret Besheer; VOA Burmese contributed to this report.