Myanmar’s media is headed into 2022 in a parlous state, with independent journalists who remain in the junta-ruled country forced to operate surreptitiously to avoid arbitrary detention, beatings and violent repercussions for their families, according to interviews by This Week In Asia.
State media, meanwhile, has intensified the propagation of falsehoods depicting peace returning to the country, even as anti-junta fighters step up their guerilla campaign against the generals, the local journalists said.
The state of Myanmar’s media in the wake of February’s coup has come into sharper focus in recent days, following the death in custody of photographer Soe Naing after he covered a “silent strike” protest in Yangon on Dec 10.
Friends and colleagues of Soe Naing confirmed his death to Radio Free Asia last week, but his family members could not be contacted.
A graphics designer who began documenting the post-coup violence in February, Soe Naing is the first journalist to be killed since military chief Min Aung Hlaing and his junta seized power.
In a statement released in response to reports of Soe Naing’s death, Daniel Bastard, the head of Reporters Without Borders’ Asia Pacific desk, said the killing marked “a new tragic threshold” in the military’s use of force against journalists.
“His death must serve as an alarm signal and push the international community to impose new targeted sanctions on the military junta that has been running the country since February, starting with its chief, General Min Aung Min Aung Hlaing,” he said.
‘Enemies of the state’
Local journalists who spoke to This Week in Asia on condition of anonymity said pro-junta forces were advancing the narrative that news outlets such as Khit Thit and Myanmar Now — reputed locally for their independence — had become mouthpieces for the shadow administration opposing military rule, the National Unity Government (NUG).
A 29-year-old freelance journalist who continues to anonymously contribute to international wire services said the distinction between independent media’s reporting and that of state-controlled outlets had become much starker in recent months — citing coverage of a silent strike called for by the NUG on Dec 10, in particular.
“There were a lot of differences. State media under the junta released images of people going to pagodas and celebrating holidays peacefully while other media showed the city of Yangon totally deserted,” the journalist said. “I could not believe the military was releasing fake pictures.”
He added that the junta had increasingly sought to paint journalists working for non-state media as “enemies of the state”.
The Dec 10 strike was organised following the conviction and jailing of former ruling party chief Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint — both of whom were overthrown and detained following the coup.
International rights monitors have said the detention of the two leaders and others from the National League for Democracy is aimed at crippling it ahead of fresh polls that the junta plans to conduct in 2023.
Another reporter from the Democratic Voice of Burma suggested the egregious falsehoods being perpetuated by the state media were likely to lead more citizens to follow smaller independent media, even if they had not done so previously.
“The people have started to trust the independent media because they’ve seen what actually happened in front of their own eyes with these crackdowns,” she said.
More than 100 journalists were detained following the coup and Reporters Without Borders estimates that 53 of them are still in custody.
The junta tightened rules governing the media soon after seizing power, including by outlawing the use of the term “junta” to describe Min Aung Hlaing and his cabal of ruling generals who make up the so-called State Administration Council.
The licences of five outlets including the Democratic Voice of Burma and Khit Thit were also revoked — some of which had set up shop almost a decade ago, in 2012, after the end of a previous tenure of junta rule in Myanmar.
Then, under the general-turned-reformist President Thein Sein, the government granted licences to private daily newspapers and scrapped a policy that had required publications to submit page proofs to censors in advance.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.
This article was first published in Asia One . All contents and images are copyright to their respective owners and sources.