For about 20 years, the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) broadcast uncensored news into Myanmar from exile. When a civilian government came to power in 2011, the independent outlet was finally able to open a newsroom in Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar.
But that significant step for media freedom took a backward step in February when the military seized power and immediately turned its sights on the country’s press.
The internet was cut, dozens of journalists were jailed, and more than 10 media outlets, including the DVB, had their licenses revoked.
“We are totally illegal in the country. The military revoked our license, not only revoking our license, but also mak(ing) it illegal to produce any kind of media product (including) on Facebook, YouTube, and social media,” DVB’s editorial director Aye Chan Naing told VOA from an undisclosed location.
“In fact, right after the coup, one hour after the coup, they pulled the plug for our channel,” he said.
More than five months have passed since Myanmar’s military coup sparked the country’s third major uprising in three decades. With hundreds of pro-democracy protesters killed and thousands more detained, the country is in crisis.
Amid its crackdown on opposition, the junta — officially the State Administrative Council — focused its efforts on targeting Myanmar’s independent media.
Since February 1, at least 89 journalists have been arrested, 36 of whom are still detained, according to the Detained Journalist Information Facebook group and Reporting ASEAN, an organization documenting the crackdown and unreported stories from Asia.
A dozen journalists were freed last week as part of a wider release of about 2,300 people. The Associated Press cited Major General Zaw Min Tun, deputy information minister, as saying those released had taken part in protests but not violence.
Myanmar’s Ministry of Information also released a statement claiming the State Administrative Council was in control because of a state of emergency.
Country in conflict
February’s military takeover marked the end of a brief decade of civilian government.
Formerly known as Burma, Myanmar had gained independence from Britain, but from 1962 until 2011 it was under military control.
In 1988, the 8888 Uprising against military rule was met with violence. An estimated 3,000 people were killed and others were “disappeared,” rights groups including Amnesty International say.
DVB was founded four years later, in 1992, initially transmitting radio programs throughout the country while based in Oslo, Norway, and Chiang Mai, Thailand.
By 2005, DVB was broadcasting satellite television, and after the country’s democratic reforms in 2011, the media outlet in 2012 moved to Yangon.
Under the governance of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, DVB in 2018 began broadcasting on digital terrestrial television.
That is, until this year’s coup.
It’s now too risky for DVB journalists to operate from company offices because of the military crackdown, Aye Chan Naing said.
“We are now pretty much decentralized, different groups, different locations, but we coordinate online with each other. That is the future of how we are going to continue to work. We do not have headquarters or office … the most important (thing) we need is a secure place to operate,” he said.
The broadcaster is working with a couple of hundred citizen journalists, some of whom are on the run, he said.
“We do still have lots of contacts in the country, and we rely pretty much on citizen journalists, freelancers, stringers. We decentralized for security purposes, a lot of people work individually, not as a group, so they can pretty much keep low profile pretty much across the whole of the country,” he said.
Aye Chan Naing said his reporters have learned to be discreet, using multiple cellphones and carrying no press identification.
“We are still getting lots of information every day. If you look at the uprising in February, March during the crackdown, with the mobile phone and internet, it’s almost like the whole county became a journalist,” Aye Chan Naing said.
“Our main job is verifying the story,” he added. “That’s the thing, we do have our own sources, so we can double-check or triple-check.”
The risk of arrest is ever present for DVB’s team. Three of the broadcaster’s journalists have been convicted and sentenced to between two and three years in prison under Section 505(a) of Myanmar’s penal code. Three others are in pre-trial detention in Yangon’s Insein prison.
Section 505(a) penalizes incitement and has regularly been cited in the arrests of protesters and journalists since the coup.
But for the thousands detained under the law, jail isn’t the only concern. Journalists who were recently released, including American Nathan Maung, described to VOA being beaten and tortured.
Others said they were held in overcrowded cells with no access to family or outside information.
Aye Chan Naing said at least two of his journalists were beaten during questioning.
“The danger is once they get arrested, during the interrogation,” Aye Chan Naing said. After they have been charged, “it’s a lot less trouble. But of course, the prison conditions are really bad,” he added.
Myanmar’s military council press spokesperson did not respond to VOA’s message requesting comment.
In a statement to VOA earlier this month, a spokesperson did not directly respond to questions about allegations of torture and beatings but said that authorities carry out questioning of suspects "in accordance with the rule and regulations."
Because of the risks, some journalists have fled. But that too can bring legal problems.
Thai authorities detained three senior DVB reporters in May for illegal entry into the country. Last month, the reporters were granted refuge overseas; Aye Chan Naing did not disclose where they are living.
As the media crackdown continues, Aye Chan Naing admitted he’s had to reduce the number of employees working for DVB.
“Being an independent journalist is already a ticket to get arrested,” he said. “(They’re) already taking a pretty high risk and could easily get arrested.”
Aye Chan Naing said he believes the military is being “fooled by their own propaganda” and added that press freedom is taking huge blows.
“I think they want to be more like North Korea. They want to make sure (the people) don’t know what’s going on and (for) people to trust what they say,” he said, adding that DVB “will continue to operate and report” despite the difficulties.