Censorship, threats and internet blocks have created a climate of uncertainty in Myanmar since the military coup and could set press freedom back 10 years, media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said.
When the military took power on February 1, it imposed a yearlong state of emergency, detained key opposition figures and activists, imposed an internet shutdown and warned against spreading rumors on social media.
The takeover came amid months of tensions, after the military made allegations of election fraud over a November vote the National League for Democracy party won in a landslide victory.
At least one journalist has been detained, several were injured covering protests against the military takeover, privately owned TV stations were prevented from broadcasting, internet access was cut, and some journalists have described limiting their reporting to avoid the risk of arrest or harassment, media and digital rights groups said.
Reporters in Myanmar told VOA it was too risky to speak with foreign media or rights groups, and a few described receiving telephone calls from officials asking questions about whom they worked for. Some reporters said they were advised to be careful handling sensitive data when reporting on the coup and protests in case their notes and devices were used as evidence against them.
"What with censorship, threats and intimidation, press freedom has suddenly been set back 10 years in 10 days," Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF's Asia-Pacific desk, said in a statement. "The military need to understand that the people of Myanmar are now used to a free press. A sudden return to the past is out of the question."
Myanmar had made gains in media freedom in the past decade, after the end of military rule in February 2011. The country ranks 139 out of 180 countries, where 1 is the most free, according to RSF's 2020 Press Freedom Index. Between 2013 and 2017, Myanmar improved by 20 points. In more recent years, though, legal harassment and high-profile arrests that include two Reuters correspondents have led to a decline.
In the first days of the coup, the military cut access to the internet, blocked social media platforms including Facebook, and prevented privately owned TV stations from broadcasting. It said the social media ban was needed to retain "stability."
State media didn't begin reporting on the protests until Tuesday, The Associated Press reported.
The newly appointed minister of information issued a statement one day after the coup, warning that some media outlets and citizens were spreading rumors on social media and "issuing statements which can cause unrest," The Myanmar Times reported.
The military needs to respect press freedom and allow journalists to work freely, the International Federation of Journalists said in a statement. "The best interests of the people of Myanmar are best served by the truth, not its suppression."
The digital rights group Access Now described the internet blackout as "incredibly troubling."
"There is chaos and confusion, and the people of Myanmar — and the world — have a right to document events, access information and communicate with each other," Felicia Anthonio, who is part of the group's Keep It On campaign, which tracks shutdowns, said in a statement.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists also condemned moves by the military to disrupt access to information, calling the block on Facebook a "crude attempt at censoring news."
"Social media and communication platforms are crucial for journalists to report the news as democracy is upended," CPJ's Southeast Asia representative Shawn Crispin said.
In a briefing with the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI), Myanmar journalist Soe Myint said reporters were taking precautions to avoid drawing attention to themselves, including using cellphones instead of professional cameras while reporting, and changing locations frequently.
Soe Myint, who works for the news outlet Mizzima, told IPI that a more internet-savvy generation would make it harder for the military to cut off access to information.