Serving professional journalism since 1912

Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

The suppression of journalism freedom in Myanmar

It is no exaggeration to say the destruction of human freedoms in Myanmar following the military coup of 2021 means innocent and good people repeatedly hear the bang on their door at three o’clock in the morning and find themselves arbitrarily dragged into a nightmare of imprisonment, humiliation and inhuman treatment.

“Please Enjoy Our Tragedies”- Image created for the exhibition at Goldsmiths, University of London by multimedia artist ‘Sai’- an exile from persecution by Myanmar’s military junta regime.

This has been the fate of Dr. Linn Htut, Chief Minister of Shan State, arrested February 1st 2021 at 3 A.M. and detained in terrible conditions since then.

He has medical preconditions of heart problems, diabetes and high blood pressure, and does not receive proper medical care in prison.

This coupled with the fact that he has caught COVID when it was spreading rapidly in Myanmar’s prisons, offers some idea of the serious risks to Dr. Htut’s life.

On January 28th this year he was sentenced to 16 years’ imprisonment and hard labour for four counts of corruption described by his family as bogus charges fabricated by a violent, illegal and illegitimate military junta whose main purpose is to retain power and control.

Dr Htut’s fate in Nyaung Shwe Prison and that of his wife, Daw Nang Shwe Myint, subject to threatening surveillance on the outside, remains precarious in the extreme.

Mrs Myint has been denied access to her husband since his arrest.

Dr. Htut, was a member of the now-jailed former leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy ousted during the February 2021 coup.

Protesters against the military coup in Myanmar. ‘We want our leader free Daw Aung San Su’ Kyi. သူထွန်း – Own work. CC BY-SA 4.0

The focus of British media’s reporting of foreign affairs in recent months has been dominated by the horrors of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine where many journalists and media workers have been killed.

Consequently, the light has not shone so strongly on the awful events taking place in a country previously known to people in Britain as Burma.

The persecution of indigenous journalists, shutting down of free and independent media, and harassment of foreign correspondents has been another reason why we are learning so little.

Reporters Without Borders ranked Myanmar 140th out of 180 countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index.

The ignominious position of being in the bottom global quarter was consolidated before the appalling surge in media freedom violations descending on its people during the last year.

In the 2022 index it is now ranked 176 out of 180.

Like with all political prisoners, death, torture, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment is the cruel experience of journalists in Myanmar.

Reporters Without Borders presented a damning and shocking assessment of the scale of media persecution in March 2022- one year on from the coup.

Reporters sans frontières. Myanmar: One year of repression.

RSF said: ‘In order to hide its massacres of civilians, the junta has arrested, jailed, tortured and even summarily eliminated journalists.’

The Military junta’s purpose is clear. In order to cover-up the massacres and erasing from public life of people like Dr. Linn Htut, it has set about controlling news and information by arresting, jailing, torturing and killing journalists.

By March 2022, 115 journalists had been arrested while covering protests or after being hunted down by military intelligence operatives.

At least 15 media professionals, including the woman journalist Yin Yin Thein, were badly beaten and sustained injuries when arrested.

At least 64 journalists have been detained arbitrarily. Myanmar is now just behind China with the unenviable position of being the world’s second biggest jailer of journalists.

14 journalists had been tried and convicted by March. All of them were convicted under section 505a of the penal code, penalising information liable to endanger the interests of the armed forces.

Reporters Without Borders provided a chilling account of the toll of murdered journalists. They highlighted three: ‘The photographer Soe Naing was declared dead on 14 December after four days of violent interrogation in police custody. Federal News Journal editor Sai Win Aung was killed during an attack by the armed forces on 25 December in the east of the country. Pu Tuidim, the founder and editor of the Khonumthung Media Group, was abducted in the northwest of the country, near the Indian border, on 7 January by soldiers who used him as a human shield and then cut his throat after first mutilating him in an appalling manner.’

Media freedom is dead in Mynmar along with any semblance of the green shoots of democracy and rule of law raised and hoped for from 2012 by Aung San Suu Kyi’s return there from exile in Britain and the holding of free elections in 2015.

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pose for a photo with Aung San Suu Kyi and her staff at her residence in Rangoon, Burma, Nov. 19, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The Junta has banned and shut down leading independent media outlets. This has included the Democratic Voice of Burma, an independent radio and TV broadcaster which continues to operate from bases abroad, as it did before the coup.

The position of foreign correspondents is also extremely precarious. In June last year US journalist Nathan Maung provided a harrowing account of being blindfolded and beaten while in jail for 98 days.

It is clear the Generals now in control in Mynmar have been suppressing political resistance and journalistic scrutiny ruthlessly and violently.

Image of the aftermath of an alleged attack on a Burmese village by Myanmar military.

UN agencies and NGOs report multiple instances of torture, it is being reported that between 1,500 and 4,000 people may have been killed in what amounts to a civil war. At least 13,000 people have been imprisoned.

Images of atrocities and those killed have been smuggled out of the country and in some instances are too gruesome to publish. They show dismembered and incinerated bodies in the villages of Mone Taing Pin and In Pin from Ye U township of Sagaing region.

The bodies of charred victims allegedly of Myanmar military raids on villages in Sagaing region in May 2022. We have pixelated them out of respect for their dignity and the feelings of surviving relatives.

It’s alleged over 20 people were shot dead and placed under houses torched by Burmese soldiers.

UN human rights experts are now highlighting the military junta’s attempts to establish a “digital dictatorship” by imposing further restrictions on access to internet, internet shutdowns, online censorship, and Big Brother style surveillance.

Shortly before the publication of this feature Mail Online and Reuters reported Myanmar junta can’t beat rebels, should restore democracy – U.S. diplomat

The Guardian and AFP reported Myanmar junta says it will execute two prominent pro-democracy leaders and Myanmar military accused of torching hundreds of homes in three-day blitz

The BBC has certainly produced reports in recent months demonstrating all the circumstances of a civil war in Myanmar:

Myanmar: What has happened since the 2021 coup? 27th April 2022

The deadly battles that tipped Myanmar into civil war – BBC News 1st February 2022

Inside the people’s resistance 21st April 2022

Uniquely, the BBC maintains and supports a separate BBC Burmese Service and this has ‘become a lifeline for Burmese speaking audiences.’ In May 2021 the BBC said it ‘has the largest presence of any international news provider inside Myanmar and shares a compound with BBC Media Action, the BBC’s international development charity.’

Sky News runs a full page of news and features about the conflict and situation in Myanmar and this April 18th podcast ‘Myanmar massacre: Who’s telling the truth?’ indicates the depth of their coverage, analysis and interest.

British media coverage of events in Myanmar is consistent and regular, but bears no resemblance to the scale, detail and intensity of that of Russia’s war with Ukraine.

It can certainly be argued that the Myanmar and Russian dictatorships and the misery they are creating are very similar.

The United Kingdom and its media can do more to help. There are Burmese people who have fled the country and are now exiled here.

They are fearful of tracking by the Junta’s global intelligence operations and reprisals on their family and friends still in Myanmar.

They need British protection and compassionate visa arrangements so they can stay here for as long as they need to.

Dr Linn Htut’s son who goes by the generic pseudonym ‘Sai’ is a multimedia artist currently sponsored with a Fellowship by Goldsmiths, University of London.

In March he presented an exhibition in London titled ‘Please Enjoy Our Tragedies’ as part of his campaign to bring the world’s attention to the plight of his father.

He said: ‘My father may die, regardless of what I do,” he said. “My mother may die. I may die. But before that, we have to let people know that this has happened.’

Sai has been indefatigable and tenacious in doing everything he can to alert the world to the tragedy facing his family and country. Time magazine reported: ”The World is Doing Nothing.’ A Myanmar Artist’s Daring Mission to Tell the Story of His Father and Their Country’s Suffering.’ His exhibition was also covered by OpenDemocracy ‘Under Myanmar’s junta, art has become an act of resistance…artist Sai reveals the horrors of an overlooked conflict’, and more recently Mousse Magazine’s ‘No Images of Myanmar after February 1, 2021’.

Sai has also organised a complaint on behalf of his father to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

Valegos Mangenuit – Own work
CC BY-SA 4.0 File:Myanmar (orthographic projection).svg Created: 17 May 2020

Myanmar is 5,332 miles from Britain. There are profound cultural and historical ties between the two nations.

It is not just the hangover from the awkward legacy of Empire. British servicemen gave their lives in their thousands to fight with Burmese people to overthrow the invasion and occupation of the Japanese between 1942 and 1945.

The United Kingdom has fostered, aided and been a positive agency for democracy and human rights there.

British editors and journalists can certainly help those journalists and politicians who are being silenced with more attention, analysis and coverage from the outside.

This is a message for British journalism editors from a correspondent in Myanmar who has to remain anonymous because he fears for his life:

We will fight enemies of freedom with fullest strength and unity until we win. Just help us now before we are killed, tortured and die from starvation. I will prove you by showing you how the military has committed crimes against humanity with the images collected from local sources. The people from Myanmar will never forget all of your gratitude and will invite you to come and see a new free Burma again.’

Updated 2nd November 2022 Targeting of Burmese and foreign journalists

In September 2022, Htet Htet Khine, a Burmese freelance journalist and former BBC Media Action presenter was sentenced to three years in prison with hard labour in a sham trial on 15 September after more than a year in pre-trial detention. 12 days later she was sentenced to a further three years in prison and hard labour under the Unlawful Associations Act for working for Federal FM, a radio station banned by Myanmar’s military government, and for ‘harbouring’ a journalist wanted by the authorities.

She had been arrested with Sithu Aung Myint, a journalist with whom she had spent several weeks in hiding in a Yangon apartment. He worked for the independent magazine Frontier Myanmar and Voice of America radio. He was sentenced to three years in prison with hard labour on October 7 for ‘inciting government employees to commit crimes’ over articles critical of Myanmar’s military. In April, his lawyer said his health was deteriorating and that the prison authorities were denying him medical attention.

In Myanmar there is no immunity if you are a foreign national working there as a journalist. On October 6 a military court jailed Japanese journalist Toru Kubota  for a total of 10 years for sedition and violating a law on electronic communications.

The 26 year-old had filmed an anti-government protest in July and was arrested by plainclothes police in Yangon. The documentarist received three years for sedition and seven years for the communications charges.

Japan says it is exerting as much diplomatic pressure as it can to secure his release.

Reporters Without Borders has called on Tom Andrews, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, to take action to ‘end the spate of criminal convictions to which Burmese journalists are being subjected at an astonishing rate.’ RSF adds: ‘It is unacceptable that a journalist is imprisoned just for doing her job to freely inform her fellow citizens.’

At least 110 journalists have been arrested in Myanmar since the military retook power in a coup in February 2021, and 66 are currently imprisoned. 2022 has been a depressing year when journalists detained have faced trials and been given heavy jailed sentences. These include Maung Maung Myo, a freelancer who was sentenced to six years in prison on a terrorism charge in August, and the woman reporter Nyein Nyein Aye sentenced to three years in prison with hard labour in July.