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Military Coup Propels Myanmar Into Global Impunity Index


FILE - A journalist and a police officer take pictures of each other during a protest against the military coup, in Yangon, Myanmar, Feb. 23, 2021.
FILE - A journalist and a police officer take pictures of each other during a protest against the military coup, in Yangon, Myanmar, Feb. 23, 2021.

Myanmar’s military crackdown on media means the country now ranks among the world’s worst countries in terms of impunity in the killings of journalists, according to a new report.

The press freedom group the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) included Myanmar in its annual Global Impunity Index for the first time in 2022. Of the five journalists killed there in the past 10 years, three died while detained by the junta, according to CPJ research.

Somalia, for the eighth year, tops the list published Tuesday. Mexico, which is on track to record its deadliest year with more than a dozen journalists slain, comes in at sixth on the index, which tracks unsolved journalist killings.

“The fact that Myanmar appears for the first time on the Impunity Index, the fact that it catapulted in the rankings of our jailed journalists list, demonstrates just how repressive the regime has been since the February 1 (2021) coup and just how harsh the clampdown has been on protesters and those looking to report on the regime,” CPJ’s president Jodie Ginsberg told VOA.

CPJ in late 2021 ranked Myanmar among the leading jailers of media workers globally, as the junta detained dozens of reporters.

Impunity makes reporting in Myanmar harder and riskier, according to one former journalist. The editor requested anonymity because he remains in the country.

“The message is the military can kill journalists who are taking photos and gathering news,” he wrote in a message to VOA. “I am not feeling safe, most of the night I am feeling they can show up at my door.”

Major General Zaw Min Tun, the spokesperson for Myanmar's military council, told VOA that the forensic reports on two of those who died in police custody list heart issues as the cause of death and that those cases are now closed. He said there is no police report or information on the third journalist, Pu Tuidim.

Any journalists detained are arrested not for their work but because of terrorist related activities or instigation of unrest, he said.

Zaw Min Tun said that when freelance photojournalist Soe Naing was arrested authorities found evidence of supporting terrorist organizations and distributing "documentary photos to media." And when police detained photographer Aye Kyaw, they found a gun and two grenades. Both died of heart problems while in custody, he said.

The military has long enjoyed impunity for its crimes — and not just against journalists — according to Juliette Verlin, a French freelance journalist based in Myanmar’s largest city of Yangon.

“You know no one will be there to protect you if something happens. The military is an octopus-like machine that can suddenly decide to target you and squeeze the life out of you,” she told VOA via messaging app. “Local journalists are under constant threat, and the military’s impunity transforms the work environment into a very hostile one, which makes reporting more chaotic.”

Kyaw Hsan Hlaing, a freelance reporter who fled the country in April 2021, told VOA the stakes could not be higher. “It is simple,” he said. “You could die.”

‘Lack of accountability’

Myanmar journalists who spoke with VOA said that they don’t expect justice for crimes against journalists — or anyone else — anytime soon.

That outlook is consistent with the global reality. In nearly 80% of the 263 cases of journalists killed worldwide over the past decade, no one has been accountable, according to CPJ.

What’s particularly noteworthy, Ginsberg said, is that six of the countries on this year’s list have appeared every year since the index was first published in 2008. That “illustrates lack of accountability very strongly,” she added.

Among those countries is Somalia.

The dangers the country’s journalists face were underscored Saturday, when a double bombing in the capital killed television journalist Mohamed Isse Konan and seriously injured two others, including a freelance contributor to VOA’s Somali Service, Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulle.

The attackers detonated a second explosive as first responders and media arrived on the scene. It was the second time Abdulle has survived a bombing.

The militant group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack.

Somali journalists risk detention and violence from both al-Shabab and the government, Mohamed Ibrahim, president of the Somali Journalists Syndicate (SJS), told VOA in an interview before the bombing.

“The media community is dying because of impunity,” Ibrahim told VOA. “No investigative stories are done in Somalia. This is because of the impunity that has affected the safety of journalists. Journalists are forced to self-censor, so they can still be safe.”

In addition to fatal violence, arrests are another issue, Ibrahim said. The syndicate’s secretary general, Abdalle Ahmed Mumin, was detained twice in October in a move that Ibrahim believes demonstrates the harassment of media in Somalia.

Somalia’s embassy in Washington did not reply to VOA’s request for comment.

Other countries in the index include Syria, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Philippines, Brazil, Pakistan, and India.

The index ranks countries based on the number of unsolved killings over a 10-year period, and as a percentage of the population. Only journalists whom CPJ has determined were targeted directly for their work are included.

A combination of factors explains why impunity remains high, Ginsberg said, including a lack of political will. Authorities also often lack the resources to hold perpetrators accountable, she said.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, which was set up to protect media around the world.

The action plan helped garner more international attention for threats facing journalists, Ginsberg said, but more action is needed.

Journalists from Myanmar, including the one who requested anonymity, said they want the U.N. and other international actors to do more.

Impunity is an important marker of press freedom because “acts of violence against journalists and the absence of any accountability for perpetrators represents the worst kind of censorship imaginable,” Ginsberg told VOA.

CPJ has tracked an increase in the tactics used to suppress journalists, including advanced censorship, online harassment, legal threats, surveillance and spyware.

The fact that journalist are still being killed and impunity remains high indicates that murder is the last resort to blocking stories, Ginsberg said.

“Journalists are clearly doing important and valuable work if people are prepared to kill for it,” she said.

VOA's Burmese Service contributed to this report.