Security forces have blocked reporters from covering a vaccination drive for internally displaced people in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, local journalists say.
A spokesperson for Myanmar’s military government, Major General Zaw Min Tun, said in late August that members of the Rohingya minority would be given COVID-19 vaccines.
But at least two news crews who attempted to visit a camp for internally displaced persons, or IDPs, to cover the vaccination rollout say police told them they could not enter.
“Police officers said that journalists are not allowed to enter,” said Tun Tha, the editor of Western News, a Rakhine state news outlet. “If we want to enter the camp, we must seek permission from authorities.”
Tun Tha told VOA Burmese that while media have been free to cover other camps without seeking permission, that was not the case at camps housing Muslims.
“We are free to cover Rakhine IDP camp news, whereas we need permission to cover Muslim IDP camps. It seems authorities handle approaches to the Muslim community with discrimination. We take it as disruption of media access in this regard,” Tun Tha said.
A Muslim minority in a predominantly Buddhist country, the Rohingya were targeted in 2017 with a campaign that the U.N. described as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” For years before, the Rohingya have been denied citizenship and other basic rights.
State officials in Myanmar estimate more than 200,000 Muslim refugees are in Rakhine State.
Hla Thein, a military spokesperson for Rakhine State, did not respond to a request for comment from VOA Burmese.
A sweeping outbreak of the coronavirus is taxing Myanmar’s public health system that already was strained by the political upheaval after the army seized power in February from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Khin Tharapi Oo, senior reporter with Development Media Group (DMG), told VOA Burmese that her team also was denied access to the Thet Kae-Pyin IDP camp located on the outskirts of Sittwe, capital of Rakhine State.
“Camp security did not allow us to enter the camp and asked us to get [a] permit, then stopped us from taking video as well. Security even yelled at us to get out,” said Khin Tharapi Oo. “We called state authorities to [seek] permission with no avail. Other news agency reporters faced the same problem, [security would] not even let us take video or photos.”
Khin Tharapi Oo said that media had been allowed to visit other Rakhine camps without any restrictions.
“This is the first time Muslim refugees get vaccinated, we should be allowed to cover it. Authorities should not restrict us to cover this significant news. They do not have sound reason to restrict us,” she said.
Maung Lay, who manages the camp, told VOA Burmese that at least 150 refugees who are over the age of 45 were vaccinated on August 28 and 29, and second doses are scheduled for September 26. He said the camp houses about 3,000 refugees.
The media restrictions come amid a general tightening of free speech in Myanmar after the military coup.
On September 1, police in Yangon arrested a female journalist who had been in hiding for four months. Ma Thuzar, who contributed to Myanmar Pressphoto Agency and the Friday Times News Journal, was held incommunicado for five days before authorities confirmed her arrest.
The reason for her arrest and current location have not been made available, says media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
Ma Thuzar is one of dozens of journalists currently detained in Myanmar by the military.
“The way she [Thuzar] has been treated reflects the illegal, brutal and inhuman treatment to which the military junta has subjected all journalists in Myanmar for the past seven months,” RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk head Daniel Bastard said in a statement.
Also detained is American journalist Danny Fenster, who has spent more than 100 days in prison since his arrest at Yangon airport in May.
At a virtual hearing Monday, a court in Yangon again remanded Fenster, who is managing editor of Frontier Myanmar, in custody for a further two weeks.
Elizabeth Hughes contributed to this report. This story originated in VOA’s Burmese service.