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In Myanmar ‘We Have Lost Our Freedom of Expression’

FILE - Despite the risks that reporting on life in Myanmar brings, reporters such as Sang Li continue to cover the conflict, both from within and outside the country.

Two years after Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup, data on the state of journalism in the country reveals a dire picture.

More than 130 journalists have been arrested, with dozens still detained; at least 10 outlets were forced to shutter; four reporters were killed, two of them while in custody; and the country’s press freedom ranking plunged 36 spots on a global index.

In interviews with VOA in the past two years, journalists have spoken about the risks they take daily to keep covering events in the country and how the restrictions limit their ability to provide news to their audiences.

But if you ask the military regime for its view, it says the media are the fourth pillar of nation building, in accordance with the country’s press law.

Myanmar is currently one of the worst jailers of journalists globally. But military spokesperson Major General Zaw Min Tun told VOA those imprisoned are arrested for violating laws and not for their reporting.

“The journalists themselves know, I think, the question of whether they are fulfilling their responsibilities to the public,” he said.

“If you work as a journalist, we have already given you a guarantee,” Zaw Min Tun said. “[But] if they do something that violates the provisions of the terrorism law, we must take action against the journalists and the media. I would like to say that we only look at the crimes committed by the news media."

Myanmar is currently detaining more than 70 journalists, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Among them is VOA contributor Sithu Aung Myint, who is serving 12 years in prison with labor, after an arrest in August 2021.

RSF and other organizations tracking arrests say most journalists are accused of having discredited the military or violating new laws related to incitement. Some are charged under counterterrorism laws for contacting groups such as the National Unity Government of Myanmar or the People’s Defense Force that the junta has designated as terrorist groups.

The current environment makes it difficult for journalists to work, and as a result, the right of access to information is diminishing.

“There is no way for media to stand in the country, neither as an agency nor as an individual journalist,” said Nathan Maung, founder and editor-in chief of the news website Kamayut Media. “Even holding a mobile could be dangerous.”

Maung, an American journalist of Burmese descent, was jailed for 98 days in 2021 after authorities raided his Yangon-based newsroom.

After his release, he recalled to VOA how he was blindfolded, beaten and accused of being the “enemy of the state” before finally being released.

Two years on, media are limited in their ability to gather information, and journalists are taking risks to keep reporting, Maung told VOA.

“Journalists are paying a huge price with lessons learned, facing challenges to stand up to cover news. There is no press freedom at all. We lost our freedom of expression. Our vision is to rebuild the independent media.”

The difficulty in accessing reliable news since the February 1, 2021, coup was raised by a veteran journalist, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.

"Most media [have] turned into propaganda mode,” which, the journalist said, “is useless for the audience.”

“The opportunity to get professional news is lessened. It has become a situation where everyone is responsible and does not bear any accountability,” the journalist told VOA. “There are consequences to covering the news under the current circumstances.”

With the risk of arrest or even being killed, “the quality of news has declined. The media itself is not in a position to do the job well,” the journalist added. “I see it as a detriment to the audience."

One reporter, who requested anonymity for fear of safety, recounted being arrested and questioned about coverage. Even after being released, the journalist said it is hard to continue because they and their family are under strict surveillance.

"I was working as a dedicated journalist all my life. When I was released, I wanted to resume my work as a journalist, but the news media is not there in the country,” the reporter said. “I didn't want to be accused of committing crimes. I felt like I was always being watched. My family was not safe. I had to work discreetly as a reporter because I didn't want to give up my passion as a journalist.”

RSF has said that in the past two years “anti-journalist terror” has grown in Myanmar, and the military crackdown on media has “escalated steadily in every respect.”

The country ranks a lowly 176 out of 180 countries on the RSF press freedom index, where 1 signifies the best environment for media.

“RSF has been constantly appalled by the figures it has been compiling for the tragedy in Myanmar,” said Daniel Bastard, head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, in a prepared statement. “The entire country has been subjected to an implacable repressive machine. The prison sentences passed on journalists keep getting longer. All this has but one goal: to prevent the world from knowing what is happening under Myanmar’s generals.”

The junta has pledged to hold elections but outlined limitations on parties planning to run, the Reuters news agency reported.

A spokesperson for the United Nations general secretary flagged concerns on Monday concerning “the military’s stated intention to hold elections amid intensifying aerial bombardment and burning of civilian houses, along with ongoing arrests, intimidation and harassment of political leaders, civil society actors and journalists.”

“Without conditions that permit the people of Myanmar to freely exercise their political rights, the proposed polls risk exacerbating instability,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists also cautioned that elections could lack credibility under the current restrictive environment.

Noting in a statement that "press freedom conditions in Myanmar have deteriorated drastically" since the coup, CPJ's senor southeaster representative Shawn Crispin said, “The junta's stated intent of restoring democracy through elections will lack credibility as long as Myanmar’s beleaguered press continues to live under fear and repression.”

This story originated in VOA’s Burmese Service.