On World Press Freedom Day Monday, 16 western countries and the European Union called on Myanmar’s military junta to immediately release scores of media personnel arrested since the Feb. 1 coup that ousted the country’s democratically elected government.
One of the junta’s first steps after seizing control of Naypyidaw was to gain control of the airwaves, the internet and print. It blocked all but the most military-friendly channels from satellite broadcasts, revoked the licenses of several media outlets, shut off internet and mobile phone services, and intimidated, assaulted and arrested members of the media, claiming that they had broken various laws for doing their jobs.
According to a statement by the western countries, more than 80 journalists and media personnel have been arrested since the coup and more than half remain in detention.
“Media freedom is a cornerstone of democratic societies and a source of legitimacy that should be unconditionally preserved and guaranteed. Journalists must be free to report,” said a statement from the diplomatic missions of the countries and the EU in Myanmar, including the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Germany.
“We call for the immediate release of all media workers, the establishment of the freedom of information and communication and for the end of all internet restrictions in Myanmar,” it said.
Also signing the statement were the Czech Republc, Finland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain Sweden and Switzerland.
The statement by the western countries followed a less country-specific one issued Sunday by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, who said that that an independent and uncensored press was necessary for a democratic society.
“Around the world, people have increasingly taken to the streets to demand their economic and social rights, as well as an end to discrimination and systemic racism, impunity, and corruption. Journalists fulfilling their fundamental role of reporting on these social protests have intolerably become targets,” she said, without mentioning Myanmar specifically.
“The silencing of a journalist is a loss to society as a whole… We must demand that [journalists’] rights are respected, protected and fulfilled,” she said.
Several journalists from now-banned media outlets told RFA’s Myanmar Service that their organizations were targeted for accurately reporting about the human rights situation.
“Myitkyina News Journal is a local journal representing Kachin State. It is the only popular journal publishing legally here with a big audience. We see the ban on our journal as a deliberate attempt to blackout the news for the Kachin people,” Seng Mai, editor-in-chief- of the journal, which was shut down Sunday, told RFA.
“We reported the human rights abuses since the military takeover. It’s because of this, because we wrote about the crimes, they committed that they closed us down. But we were just telling the truth,” Seng Mai said.
Six other news outlets were shut down between Feb 1 and March 8. They included Mizzima, DVB, 7 Days, Myanmar Now, and Khit Thit News.
Aye Chan Naing, the executive director of DVB, told RFA that journalists are targeted simply for doing their jobs.
“Six officially registered media outlets, including ours, have had their licenses revoked. Journalists are arrested simply for covering the news and telling people what is happening in the country,” Aye Chan Naing said.
“In the history of Myanmar, now is the worst time for freedom of the press,” he added.
Sein Win, the chairman of Mizzima, said that without a functioning press the country was now facing the “dark ages.”
“On Feb. 1, Mizzima and DVB were removed from the Free to Air TV channels. Then the army took over [the satellites]. That’s how it all started. After that, [junta leader Gen. Min Aung Hlaing] shut down more outlets and started making arrests. His actions are totally incompatible with democracy,” Sein Win said.
RFA has confirmed that 45 journalists arrested between Feb. 1 and Sunday are still in detention. More than 40 have been charged with Section 505 (a) of Myanmar’s Penal Code, which states “defamation of the military” as illegal.
Myint Kyaw, who was joint secretary of the Myanmar Media Council for the ousted civilian government, told RFA the junta only wants a media that will not speak negatively about it.
“It is true that they do not want an independent media… I can see that [Gen. Min Aung Hlaing] only wants something to use for propaganda,” Myint Kyaw said.
“State owned media is still there all the time, working for propaganda. In the current situation, the level of propaganda is at its peak,” the former secretary said.
The state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported that junta leader Sr. Gen Min Aung Hlaing opened the new Myawady Media Centre in Yangon on May 3.
.“Media services need to firmly prevent the broader infiltration of concepts, lifestyle and culture of developed countries using modern multimedia for serving their interests into other countries and attacks of political, economic and social sectors,” the newspaper said.
Local journalists told RFA that even under the civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, restrictions on the media existed, but the press was still relatively free in terms of what they could cover.
While the journalists may see that period as a golden era for reporting, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said dark clouds were already gathering midway through her 2015-20 term.
It cited the prosecution in 2018 of two Reuters reporters who had revealed an army massacre of Muslim Rohingya civilians in western Myanmar and were jailed for 500 days “on the basis of fabricated evidence and bogus criminal proceedings.”
“This coup was not a complete surprise inasmuch as the climate for press freedom had already been worsening again during the past three years,” said RSF.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Eugene Whong.