When Myanmar’s military seized power earlier this year, it quickly set about arresting journalists, cutting internet access and revoking media licenses.
For Aye Chan Naing, executive director and chief editor of the independent Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), the coup signaled a return to exile.
The veteran journalist is currently living in Norway, where DVB broadcasts via satellite into Myanmar.
On Thursday, his efforts to keep Myanmar informed despite the risks to DVB’s journalists were recognized with an International Press Freedom Award.
Presented by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, Naing was honored alongside journalists from Guatemala, Mozambique and Hong Kong.
“The mere act of doing journalism, especially accountability journalism, journalism that threatens people in power, is inherently dangerous,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “So we want to recognize both the work they're doing and the risk they're taking.”
For Naing, the biggest challenge of reporting from exile is depending on second- and thirdhand sources.
“It's very hard for us to be on the ground, so we have to depend on witnesses,” he told VOA.
“The military have arrested over 100 journalists. And about 50 people are still being detained in prison."
Myanmar this week released American journalist Danny Fenster, after 176 days in prison. But many local journalists remain incarcerated or at risk of arrest, including those working for DVB.
I think this award will highlight the plight of our journalists on the ground, who are in prison, but also who are still struggling to report, risking their life, risking their future,” Naing said.
CPJ also honored Matías Guente, executive editor of Mozambique news outlet Canal de Moçambique.
Arsonists set fire to the investigative news outlet’s offices in August 2020, and its staff members have been harassed and threatened or faced legal action over the years.
Guente told VOA that all journalists in Mozambique face challenges.
“Mozambican journalism is very politicized … and when journalists want to address this, they are regarded as biased, and end up victims of verbal or physical violence,” Guente said.
“The very same work that wins awards abroad is not very welcome here,” Guente said, adding that while the legal framework in his country “is one of the best in Africa, in practice it is not.”
Guatemalan journalist Anastasia Mejía has also faced legal challenges. The Xolabaj Radio co-founder was detained in 2020 shortly after covering a protest in her hometown of Joyabaj.
"I was deprived of my liberty for 36 days; the hearings were postponed in order to delay the process,” she told VOA.
A court later dismissed the charges filed against her. But Mejía is still afraid. "If I keep talking, they will kill me, they will destroy my family."
Mejía said that her government’s attempts at silencing her will not keep her from speaking out.
"With this award, I will continue to raise my voice, and I will continue to speak for others — for the oppressed, for the persecuted," she said.
CPJ on Thursday presented its Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award to Jimmy Lai, the jailed founder of pro-democracy news outlet Apple Daily.
Named in memory of veteran American broadcaster Ifill, the award is presented each year to an individual who has shown extraordinary and sustained achievement in the cause of press freedom.
This year, it was presented to Hong Kong’s Lai by CPJ board member and former VOA director Amanda Bennett. The Biden administration last week announced Bennett as its nominee to lead the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees VOA.
Lai could face life in prison in Hong Kong. His arrest was one of the first under Hong Kong’s national security law. His outlet was shuttered in June and several of its executives have been detained.
The state of press freedom around the world is dire, CPJ’s Simon said.
In his 25 years with CPJ — 15 as head of the nonprofit — Simon has overseen the release of hundreds of imprisoned journalists.
"The environment for independent journalism has changed everywhere, including in the United States,” he told VOA. “The challenges are greater. That period of profound optimism that existed when I started this job 25 years ago, unfortunately, that's no longer the case.”
"We’re in a period where repressive leaders have the upper hand, unfortunately, and we're going to continue to see record numbers of journalists in prison around the world,” Simon said. “And we're going to see significant challenges for journalists trying to cover stories in repressive societies.”
Simon advocates for stronger leadership by example, on the part of the U.S.
“The one thing we can certainly do, that's really critical, is the United States has to be in a position to assert global leadership. And it isn't currently,” he said.
Simon said that despite the challenges, he is guardedly optimistic.
“My optimism stems not from examining the current reality, but from a recognition of what's at stake,” he said. “Many people around the world recognize that. They ultimately support independent journalism, they ultimately recognize the value of what journalists do, and they're ultimately willing to fight for it.”
Myanmar’s Naing no doubt regards himself as one of those fighters and is also cautiously optimistic.
“More than 10 months after the coup, the military [is] never really able to silence the country and silence the people, and we're getting tons of information from around the country,” he said.
The military banned Facebook, censored the internet and limited the use of mobile phones, but still the numbers of followers on DVB’s Facebook and YouTube platforms “have almost tripled” since the coup.
"The first time I left Burma in 1988 it took 20 years before I could go back. … And my hope is this time around, it won't take that long.”