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Myanmar Journalists Describe Challenges of Reporting Under Military Rule

FILE - A journalist and a police officer take pictures of each other as people protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, Feb. 23, 2021. Journalists reporting on the resistance movement are often forced to work underground or in exile to avoid arrest or retaliation.

Two years after the military took control of Myanmar, widespread opposition to the junta has fueled an armed resistance and conflict across the country.

Journalists trying to report on the situation are often forced to work underground or in exile to avoid arrest or retaliation.

It’s a situation that brings its own challenges, including finding regular funding, withstanding pressure from the military and others, and keeping staff secure.

In the first few months of the takeover in 2021, the military revoked licenses of several media outlets and detained dozens of journalists.

The quickly diminishing environment for media led to the creation of Lu Nge Khit.

“We founded a media [organization] because we don’t want to give up our media freedom,” Lu Nge Khit editor Hsu Htet told VOA.

Freedom underground

The independent media outlet now reports on conflict, refugees and internally displaced people.

With a team of 16 journalists based throughout Myanmar, Lu Nge Khit in many ways is an underground operation.

Many of its team had joined the civil disobedience movement, Hsu Htet said.

“[They] lost their job(s) from their media organizations because they don’t agree with the stuff from their previous media organizations and don’t want to comply with the [State Administration Council] rules,” Hsu Htet said.

The outlet has built up a substantial Facebook following of more than 315,000, but after 18 months, Lu Nge Khit is struggling to have its work noticed more widely through its social media pages and website.

“Some of us don’t take salary from this organization. We’ve relied on donors, but other media relies on donors,” Hsu Htet said. “Because we are small, we face more challenges.

“We do not really have any resources…we are barely surviving. We don’t have [media] registration so many people don’t know about us, so it limits our capacity to get news, to reach out to our sources….it impacts on the quality of reporting,” she added.

Press registration is a tricky issue in the restrictive media environment.

To be legally able to report in Myanmar, news outlets must register with the military government. And to do that, journalists must provide their personal details.

With regional watchdog Reporting ASEAN showing 135 journalists detained so far since February 2021, many are wary of registering.

Tin Htar Swe is a former journalist for BBC Burmese who currently works as a freelance Myanmar analyst based in Britain.

The journalist, who was awarded an Order of the British Empire in 2014, said getting press accreditation means you must report the official narrative.

“One you are registered with [Myanmar’s] Ministry of Information and given a journalist pass, you have to toe their line, if you don’t toe the line, they can easily revoke the license,” she told VOA.

But on the flip side, she said, it’s a huge risk for journalists to keep reporting underground without accreditation.

“You can move from house to house, but the owner of the house has to register with the local administration that they have somebody staying overnight. If there is [someone] not from the area, they have to notify the local authorities they are staying with them. It’s impossible to be a professional journalist,” she said.

Media workers who have been released from prison also have said that authorities warned that if they keep reporting they will be “held accountable for all previous offences at once.” One reporter said they were told they would be shot, according to Reporting ASEAN.

In previous comments to VOA, the military spokesperson has dismissed concerns over the media environment, saying that members of the press and opposition forces on social media are spreading “fake news.”

Taking steps to protect staff

Some journalists with media accreditation still take steps to protect their staff.

Until the coup, the media outlet Myaelatt Athan reported on local news in and around Myanmar’s Magway region.

The news outlet has official press accreditation that is valid until 2024, but most of the staff report in self-exile.

“They [authorities] are searching for the media everywhere. They know our detailed information from the license registration. This is why I cannot stay no longer in Myanmar or in my hometown,” Salai Kaung Myat Min, the managing editor, told VOA. “[Some] still live in Myanmar, hiding town by town.”

The decision to leave came in 2021 when local police detained one of the outlet’s reporters.

Salai says that police demanded that Myaelatt Athan stop reporting in exchange for their colleague’s release.

Salai reluctantly agreed, but the editor had a plan. Once his journalist was freed and had left Myanmar completely, the editor started his media outlet again.

“This is why I was forced to stop Myaelatt at this time, the page, website, and everything. We created a new page,” Salai said.

Even then, the military has tried to influence reporting, the journalist said.

“[The military] wanted to negotiate with me, three or four times by phone calling. They don’t want to stop our media, but they wanted to give [us] some information, they want [us to report their] propaganda,” he said.

Salai however admitted that the situation in Myanmar has led to both sides trying to promote their narratives.

“Sometime the anti-military side, they want [to] promote their organizations, but I don’t want to promote them. I just want to know only about the ground situation, the realistic situation,” he said.

Hsu Htet echoed that difficulty.

“If [journalists] talk to the military or police for information they will be considered as informants and targeted by resistance groups," she said. "If they report against the military, they are already targeted by these people."