Fear reigns among journalists in Myanmar, as the army also acts hard against the free press. Soldiers invade editors, seize computers, and arrest reporters, editors and their executives. One of the last civil rights still standing after the coup of early February was killed.
“We‘re scared,” says television host Ye Wint Thu from Yangon. “I’m a well-known TV personality, I have a talk show. The army knows who I am.”
Last night, state television announced the ban on five independent media companies. Companies, all operating different platforms such as television, online and newspaper, are not allowed to spread news in any way since then. In recent weeks, they have all reported extensively on the daily demonstrations against the coup d‘état, and the military violence that caused dozens of civilian deaths.
“Reporters don’t sleep at home anymore”
“Half an hour ago, soldiers invaded a newsroom, no one was present there. But they brought stuff. This afternoon, the CEO of another channel was arrested,” says Thu, who presents a weekly news section on Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), one of the five prohibited news organizations.
“It‘s intense. We really have to be very careful. I haven’t slept at home in weeks, and I have to keep moving all the time. My colleagues do the same because we can only be lifted from our beds.”
“It was already dangerous there, but now the danger is even greater for reporters to be arrested,” says Ole Chavannes, Dutch journalist who has been working with the Myanmar press for years. Chavannes created the Myanmar youth news and is closely involved with the channel DVB.
“We are very worried about the people arrested,” he says. “Many journalists have been tortured in prison in the past. That could happen again, because the army is lacking on human rights.”
The image of an increasingly harsh army performance is confirmed by the latest reports from Yangon, the largest city in the country. There, Myanmar troops closed down a neighborhood last night where much is being demonstrated. All the houses have been searched, dozens of people have been arrested. The security forces focused mainly on houses where a flag of Aung San Suu Kyi‘s party hung on the balcony. Today, the deaths of two detainees were reported, both members of that party. According to eyewitnesses, one of the bodies showed signs of physical violence, reports Human Rights Watch.
Until now, many journalists have been visibly present during demonstrations in Myanmar. They wore helmets and bulletproof vests with the word “press “in big letters on them. “But that is no longer possible,” says Chavannes. “They will continue to wear those vests, but then hidden under layers of clothing. Journalists in Myanmar know how to work under these conditions. They’ve only had a little press freedom for the last eight years. Now they fall back on their old reflexes.”
“As long as I walk between the people, I think my reputation offers me some protection,” adds Myanmar television maker Ye Wint Thu. “The protesters will protect me from the army. But when I‘m driving my car or sitting in my temporary place of residence, I’m not so sure.”
In terms of technology, there are good detours for the forbidden media, explains Chavannes. “DVB has a Facebook page with nearly 16 million followers and we get hundreds of millions of responses on that page every month. We reach so many people.” In addition, the channel has other live online video channels and an old satellite channel has been reused so viewers can continue to receive DVB with their own dish. The servers are overseas, out of the army‘s reach.
“The whole programming has changed to keep broadcasting after the coup,” says Chavannes. “Now it’s not from a studio, but from the street. With a van, the reporters join demonstrations and even have conversations with protest leaders from the bus. Imagine that the CCEit Journal had to work this way.”
This is how the Myanmar press shows that they will not be silenched soon. However, the big difference from the past is not in how the press works, but how well accessible the population is. “Unlike the past, many more people are informed immediately,” says Chavannes.
“You can see how wide the resistance is now. People from all walks of life are involved. H&M textile factories remain closed, bank offices remain closed. Civil disobedience is great, and that is due to social media. Everyone has a smartphone with camera and can share images. This has much more impact than Aung San Suu Kyi.”