Accessibility links

Breaking News

Since 2021 Coup, Myanmar Media Resist Repression

FILE - Police arrest a Myanmar Now journalist in Yangon, Feb. 27, 2021, as protesters were taking part in a demonstration against the military coup.
FILE - Police arrest a Myanmar Now journalist in Yangon, Feb. 27, 2021, as protesters were taking part in a demonstration against the military coup.

Thursday marks three years since Myanmar's military seized power in a coup, propelling the country into a period of conflict and restrictions on free expression.

Cracking down on the country's independent media has been a focal point of the military's strategy to maintain power, analysts say.

"The junta — they're like mushrooms. They thrive in the darkness, and they'll do anything that they can to hide what it is they're doing and to hide their attacks on civilians," Tom Andrews, the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, told VOA. "They'll do everything they can to stop the word getting out."

As of December 2023, Myanmar ranked second-worst in the world in terms of journalist jailings with 43 behind bars, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

"The journalist profession is one of the most dangerous professions in Myanmar," a journalist based in Bangkok told VOA. The journalist, who fled Myanmar after the coup, requested anonymity for safety reasons.

Few journalists are still operating on the ground due to security risks, and many outlets have moved their operations — and teams — outside the country.

Of the journalists still in Myanmar, many are forced to frequently relocate, the journalist in Bangkok said. He added that others take on "cover" jobs to hide that they are working in media.

"Journalist work is underground work in Myanmar," he said.

Some outlets like the Democratic Voice of Burma have managed to reestablish their reporter networks inside the country. "We continue to take the risk for the last three years and will continue to do so," said its executive director, Aye Chan Naing.

Myra Dahgaypaw, who works on Myanmar at the human rights group the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, said that despite the risks and restrictions, journalists will continue reporting.

"They have been trying to wipe out independent media, but they will not be able to do it," Dahgaypaw said, referring to the military. "The people of Burma are very resilient."

Some analysts say the junta's moves to silence independent media through arrests and revoking licenses underscore broader repression and violence facing the entire population.

But at a time when human rights groups accuse Myanmar's military of war crimes and crimes against humanity, the role of independent media is vital, said Wai Wai Nu, founder of the human rights group Women's Peace Network.

"The military's crackdown against the media reflects their objective to control the country," said Wai Wai Nu, who is a member of the persecuted Rohingya minority. "At the same time, the resistance of the media also reflects the people's will and commitment to the revolution."

Myanmar's military did not reply to VOA's request for comment.

With Myanmar's most prominent outlets like Frontier Myanmar, The Irrawaddy and the Democratic Voice of Burma regrouping beyond the country's borders, journalists are still able to report on Myanmar and the population's plight from abroad.

"In the face of censorship and state-controlled media, independent journalism has become a powerful tool for mobilizing public opinion," said Kyaw Hsan Hlaing, a journalist who left Myanmar after the coup and is now based in Hawaii.

And in December, independent outlets in Thailand established the Independent Press Council Myanmar to promote press freedom and enhance protections for reporters working in the country.

But reporting on Myanmar from the outside is not without challenges.

The biggest problem today is funding, according to Ben Dunant, editor-in-chief of Frontier Myanmar, an English-language magazine that relocated from Yangon to Thailand.

"It is difficult — or even impossible — for many of them to make commercial revenue in this environment," Dunant told VOA. "This underlines the vulnerability of these media organizations whose operations are dependent on the whims of donors in faraway countries."

Another challenge is verifying on-the-ground reports, according to a journalist who fled Myanmar after the coup and now works from Chiang Mai, Thailand. She requested anonymity for safety reasons.

"There's so many things happening in Myanmar on the ground," she said. "We can't cover at least half of what is happening on the ground because of lack of verification."

The journalist said that she also has to take certain measures, like forgoing a byline and maintaining a low profile on social media, to ensure the military does not retaliate against family still in Myanmar.

The challenges are steep, journalists said, but the stakes are much higher. That sentiment is a major source of inspiration for the news outlets.

Since the coup, independent media have become a de facto force in the opposition to the military, multiple journalists told VOA.

"Striving to be as objective as possible, it still ultimately plays a role in the struggle, because it frustrates the military regime's ability to control the narrative," Dunant said.

Myra Dahgaypaw agreed, saying, "It'll always be the independent media that works for the people of Burma."

After three years, the military appears to be increasingly on the defensive due to momentum from Operation 1027, an offensive launched against the military in the north in October by a coalition of ethnic armed organizations called the Three Brotherhood Alliance.

The military now controls less than half of the country, according to Andrews, the special rapporteur. "They are weak, and they are weakening," he said.

Still, optimism is not necessarily abundant.

In January, a secret military tribunal sentenced award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker Shin Daewe to life in prison for allegedly violating Myanmar's anti-terrorism law.

Developments like these hit especially hard for the journalists who managed to leave.

For the reporter in Chiang Mai, "It's very difficult to say the word 'hope' at this current time," she said.