In just under six months Myanmar has become one of the worst jailers of journalists in the world, with at least 32 currently detained, a media freedom watchdog said Wednesday.
The targeting of media since the February 1 coup marks a “drastic reversal” of positive inroads made by the Southeast Asian country toward greater freedom of expression since the end of its last period of military rule, the Committee to Protect Journalists said in a special report.
Since Myanmar’s army toppled the elected civilian government and arrested its de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, over 900 people have been killed and 5,400 arrested, charged or detained including dozens of journalists, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma).
As well as arrests, authorities have periodically imposed internet blackouts, revoked media licenses and issued warrants for reporters, a move that CPJ says is driving critical reporters underground or into self-imposed exile.
“As of July 1 at least 32 journalists were being held behind bars either on false news related charges or uncharged altogether,” Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative, told VOA. “This is repression unlike I think probably we’ve seen anywhere in the world over the last six months. This is a worse situation than China. This is a worse situation than in Turkey.”
Those two countries usually account for the highest numbers of imprisoned journalists, according to CPJ’s census carried out each December. But Crispin said the data on those currently held in Myanmar make the country a close third. For comparison, last December Myanmar had only one journalist in jail.
At the height of the repression in June, CPJ documented at least 45 journalists behind bars. Myanmar later freed some of those. But for those still detained, conditions are dire with reports of torture and overcrowding.
The CPJ said the full number being held may be higher, with many media organizations reluctant to identify their contributors for fear of reprisals.
“It seems pretty clear that the junta regime is aiming to eliminate free press altogether,” Crispin said, describing the current environment as an “humanitarian crisis for journalists.”
Local media have borne the brunt of repression but international news outlets have been restricted and at least four foreign journalists detained. Three of those—American reporter Nathan Maung, and correspondents from Poland and Japan—were later released.
But Danny Fenster, the American managing editor for English-language local publication Frontier Myanmar, has been in custody for over 65 days.
Fenster, who is being held in Yangon’s Insein prison, told his lawyer he has the coronavirus but has not been provided with medical assistance. A court hearing scheduled for Wednesday was pushed back and his family have limited contact or updates on his wellbeing.
The journalist, originally from metro Detroit, had been working in Myanmar for a couple of years. He was arrested on May 24 at Yangon airport, when he tried to fly home for a family visit.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Tuesday the Myanmar military’s refusal to respect rights is “flatly unacceptable” and called for the release of those detained.
A State Department spokesperson told VOA Wednesday it remains deeply concerned over Fenster’s detention and is continuing to press the military regime to release him.
The jailing of Fenster and other journalists, as well as the military use of violence against the media is an unacceptable attack on freedom of expression, the spokesperson added.
Media freedom record under Suu Kyi’s elected government was far from flawless. Two Reuters reporters who reported on abuses against the Rohingya Muslim minority were imprisoned for over 500 days.
But under the junta, CPJ’s Crispin says, Myanmar has used expanded laws around false news and incitement to target journalists as it seeks to “black out the news” of the deadly crackdown on pro-democracy campaigners.
“We found that many news outlets that were free to operate under Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government are now effectively operated underground. That means they have to close the bureaus,” he said, adding that many report from safe houses or while on the run.
American journalist Maung told VOA his team at Kamayut Media knew they could face danger at any time.
On March 9 around 40 armed soldiers raided their news outlet, and arrested Maung and his colleagues.
“They interrogated me for the first four days, they didn’t give me water for three days,” Maung told VOA.
The journalist said his captors kept him handcuffed, blindfolded and in stress positions.
“The first few days when I was being tortured I thought I could be killed anytime,” Maung said.
His colleague Hanthar Nyien suffered too. CPJ’s report says Nyien was forced to kneel on an ice block, burned with cigarettes, and threatened with rape to force the journalist to hand over the code to unlock his smartphone.
The prison guards later learned that Maung was American, and he was released after 98 days. Nyien remains in custody.
“My body is in the United States but my mind everyday stays with my friends in the prison,” Maung said.
Myanmar’s military council has not directly responded to VOA’s queries on the treatment of detainees, but a spokesperson said the questioning of suspects is "in accordance with the rule and regulations."
In a seemingly unrelenting crackdown “it’s hard to find positive strength in what’s happening right now in Myanmar for free press,” Crispin said. “They really are trying to erase the opening that allows the free press to take hold.”
But print outlets have pivoted to news shared over Facebook, and citizen journalists are risking arrest, bullets and tear gas to record the actions of the security forces.
A number of journalists have sought sanctuary in neighboring countries including Thailand and India.
“The junta can’t stop the internet, they can’t shut down Facebook…they can’t shut down information,” said one Myanmar reporter.
The journalist, who is in hiding outside the country, asked for their identity and location to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.
"We don’t want to settle here. We want to keep working and reporting for Burma. We’re illegal here. We don’t have any document, so they [the authorities here] can arrest us and deport us back to Burma any day. We have to be low profile and very cautious," the journalist said.
Crispin urged neighboring countries to provide a safe haven for journalists in hiding.
“It’s our hope that they will be allowed sanctuary in neighboring countries that would make it a little safer for them to report the news,” he said.
Editor's note: This article has been updated to include a comment by the U.S. State Department on American journalist Danny Fenster.