Military Junta in Myanmar Tries to Crush Free Press and Dissent

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After the coup in February, the military force responsible for overthrowing the democratically elected Myanmar government has made multiple attempts to suppress free media. Their bids to block the free press range from shutting down publications and arresting journalists to monitoring the internet and cracking down on protestors. 

“Myanmar journalists are still doing their job via social media and other means, despite internet restrictions and fears of phone taps, the regime has a lot of ways to assault the media,” said John Aung, an editor at a Myanmar publication who talked to the media under a pseudonym after his practicing license was revoked.  

Journalists can be arrested for their reporting on the coup and protests against the military, Aung said. 

On Feb. 1, the Myanmar military — also known as the Tatmadawseized control after the incumbent National League for Democracy Party was reelected in a landslide vote last November. The military claimed the election was tainted by fraudulent voting and seized control of the government shortly after. The military remains in power to this day. 

Protests erupted in response to the coup, with people taking to the streets to voice their opposition to the Tatmadaw regime. The military has killed 728 people so far and detained over 3,000 people, according to the New York Times. 

At first, the military junta employed scare tactics to prevent journalists from reporting on the news in Myanmar. Shortly after the coup, the Ministry of Information warned publishers against using “incorrect words” like “coup”, “junta” or “regime” to describe the military government.

As the coup continues, news outlets have struggled to publish freely and journalists continue to face challenges while reporting in Myanmar. 

Covering the protests against the junta has become dangerous for the media in Myanmar, as they remain under the threat of arrest for their work. During the ongoing coup, at least 56 journalists have been arrested, with three more journalists shot while photographing protests. 

Associated Press Journalist Thein Zaw, a photographer who was documenting the military’s clash with protestors, was surrounded and arrested in February. While under the custody of the junta he was charged with violating a public order law and faced up to three years in prison. He was released three weeks later after international outcry

Yuki Kitazumi, a Japanese-born freelance reporter operating out of the city of Yangon was arrested at his home on April 18th, on the suspicion of “fake news.” He is currently being held in a detention center over the allegations. 

Some journalists have also stopped wearing press badges in combat zones to resist military targeting. Reporters have also begun publishing content anonymously to prevent suspicion and have stopped sleeping at home to avoid arrest. 

The regime has also cut internet access in Myanmar, first sporadically and then completely on April 2. There is no information on when it will be restored. The internet black-out makes it almost impossible for the media to communicate with the protestors while also making it impossible for protesters to coordinate their protests. 

The junta also introduced a cybersecurity bill that would allow the government to access internet user data, block websites, and imprison critics and officials who are not complying, according to Human Rights Watch. 

In Myanmar, the military government has stepped up its efforts to oust media publishers. Since publishers in the country require licenses to operate, on March 8, the junta revoked the licenses of five major media outlets — Mizzima, DVB, Khit Thit Media, Myanmar Now and 7DayNews — which were providing coverage on the coup. 

Five privately owned newspapers have also shut down operations since the military takeover, including the English-language paper, The Myanmar Times. 

Now, the state-owned daily newspapers and state-run Myanmar television and radio publishers dominate the country’s media and are among the few remaining publishers currently in operation. 

International media have also drawn criticism in their coverage of the coup, particularly CNN. Critics accused CNN chief foreign correspondent Clarissa Ward of legitimizing the junta, as the journalist’s team was given permission to go into the country under the directive of the Tatmadaw. 

“CNN did not report anything new,” Phyo, a 25-year-old anti-coup activist, said in an interview with Vice News. “Their story was more centered around their privilege to come into our country with the blessing of the Tatmadaw when other foreign media could not.”   

While there, Ward spoke to multiple civilian protesters, which immediately led to their arrest. Of the 11 people arrested after speaking to Ward, three remain imprisoned by the Junta, and some worry that they will not be released.  

Other international news teams have failed to enter the country since the coup began and have had to rely on reporters already inside Myanmar for information on the military regime.  

The international community has also been critical of the lack of aid from the U.N. since the coup began. 

Critics claim that the U.N. has done little to help the protestors and support free press in the country. They have asked that the U.N. intervene through a Security Council measure and commit to protecting the citizens of Myanmar, but China and Russia, who hold veto powers on the security council, have appeared unwilling to support intervention.

The International Federation of Journalists, a global union federation that protects the rights of journalists, called on the U.N. to send a team of investigators into Myanmar to fully document the human rights abuses under the current conditions. 

“By limiting journalists’ information and ability to report, the true extent of the atrocities committed against journalists and the public remains unknown,” they said.

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