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When reporters use a camera during a protest, suspicious citizens might consider them as informers, while police also target them as their enemy.
Two months after the Feb. 1 coup, being a journalist has become a risk in Myanmar. Many are being hunted down, arrested, or targeted while on coverage. As of 30 March, 57 reporters, photojournalists, and publishers had been arrested.
These days, journalists are working while on the run, even with little or no pay, and using whatever internet they can find. Many too have lost their jobs and have not received employment benefits from companies, much less protection.
Some journalists have had to call it quits or lie low for a while. Their options are limited not just by the brutality around them, but by realities such as running out of cash, inability to get proper medical treatment, and the need for safer places to stay in. Others have had to flee to safety.
“We have to change places to sleep at night times because of security concerns. When dogs bark at night, we dare not sleep (deeply). Even in the daytime, we feel insecure to do our duty,” said one journalist in the central Mandalay region.
Myanmar’s media houses – those that are still reporting – soldier on despite the nightly internet shutdowns, cutoff of mobile data service, and the military’s attempts to block access to their sites. These include four of the five independent outlets whose licenses were revoked by the military’s State Administrative Council in early March.
Seven Day News closed all its digital platforms, but others – Democratic Voice of Burma, Myanmar Now, Mizzima, Khit Thit media – continue online.
Many other outlets closed in the mayhem after the coup, so that all hard-copy newspapers and journals had stopped printing by March 17.
There are some 4,000 journalists in news organizations in Myanmar, going by estimates of the Myanmar Press Council, which collapsed in February.
While a crackdown is far from unexpected, Myanmar’s crisis comes down heavily on a news industry that is a fledgling one a decade into the country’s now-halted democratization process. Journalists and Myanmar’s news community now find themselves in a no-safety zone.
The working environment has deteriorated sharply
Safety guidelines for journalists prescribe putting on badges, vests, and other gear that identify them as media. While such badges were given soon after the Feb 1 coup, wearing them gave little protection, or became a risk as well. Journalists have been arrested while reporting, others picked up at home, without either warrants or civilian witnesses.
“We could cover protest news, staying close to the security police, earlier,” the Mandalay-based recounted. “In later days, police used slingshots against journalists wearing ‘PRESS’ jackets and helmets. Then we noticed that the security forces were targeting the journalists intentionally. Yesterday, police chased journalists using motorbikes and we have to run away for safety.”
Journalists have to watch out for informers and be careful of being mistaken as informers themselves. They are wary of the psychological war tactics by military agents who spread fake news through social media.
“The reporters are sandwiched between security police and suspicious protesters who are stressed (out) by social media. When a reporter uses a camera during a protest, protesters (can) consider him as an informer or Trojan (horse), while police target him as their enemy,” said another reporter. “There are no words to say how dangerous covering a news story is.”
Our thanks to the co-chairs @LithuaniaUNNY, @franceonu & @GRUN_NY ������������ and the #UN Group of Friends on the Protection of Journalists for this important initiative on the situation in #Myanmar. Spread the word!
Most of the charges against journalists have to do with security issues
As of Mar 30, just over half of the still-detained 27 journalists have been charged with Section 505 (a) of the Penal Code, which criminalizes comments that “cause fear”, “spread false news [or] agitates directly or indirectly a criminal offense against a Government employee”. This refers to content deemed to have dishonored Myanmar’s armed forces, and conviction carries a jail term of up to three years.
It is not always known where the journalists are held. Groups tracking arrests may not know of some incidents until later. Lawyers have volunteered to represent the journalists.
There are even fewer journalists using bylines these days. But many freelancers and unemployed news staff continue to send content to the other media outlets, as do citizen journalists.
Myanmar’s media industry practices are different from those overseas
The legal, business, and employment infrastructure in Myanmar around journalism is a work in progress. The industry has some ways to go in terms of salaries and benefits, and employment arrangements.
Salaries differ across newsrooms, but it is not unusual for a reporter to have monthly pay equivalent to US$105, though this can reach US$350 in a bigger media house. In some cases, journalists get a basic salary of US$140 a month and get paid more depending on how many articles they file. An editor at a local newspaper could earn US$500 per month.
Salaries outside the capital or major cities tend to be lower. One chief editor in Magway says he gets US$150 a month, an editor US$120, and a reporter US$90.
Likewise, it cannot be assumed that all journalists have their own news equipment. Since many journalists were using workplace computers, and newsrooms are now shut, they no longer have the tools of their trade. Not all news offices cover equipment or communication costs, or other costs like insurance.
The crackdown on media harms the public’s right to know
It undercuts the livelihoods of journalists and the larger news profession, which were already reeling under the economic crisis brought by COVID-19.
“I’ve been relying on the media industry to feed four family members. Media houses have been shut down and we couldn’t get compensation. We face big difficulties in daily life as we have no extra savings,” another journalist in Mandalay said.
In truth, many lost their jobs after COVID-19 kicked in last year and by the time the coup happened, they were no longer being paid in full. Some media owners arranged compensation but many did not, or could not. Freelancers are on their own.
“Since the military coup happened, job opportunities for journalists decrease day by day,” said a freelancer based in Yangon.
The current crisis has exposed the vulnerabilities of a still-young news sector, one whose space in society did not have enough support through legislation and professionalization of business practices before the coup.
The National League of Democracy-led government had come under fire for failing to take out media-repressive laws, which the military found useful.
Journalists are determined to continue reportage
But big questions loom about the future, and how professional news work can be supported over the longer term.
While journalists are preoccupied with survival, they wonder what lies ahead. “After this unusual crisis, journalists shouldn’t (end up) migrating to other callings,” said the trainer, Tin Zar Zaw. “If we cannot help the sustainability of media platforms, most journalists would have to move to other occupations. That would bring (us to) despair.”
For now, many news ‘outlets’ have sprung up on social media. So have new solidarity groups among journalists.
What happens to all the investment that foreign donors put into media development and training in the recent past? This has helped several media houses and training institutes keep going, but what happens next depends on how foreign governments respond to Myanmar’s coup.
“At this moment, the future of Myanmar media and journalists seems extremely uncertain,” Tin Zar Zaw pointed out. That may well be an understatement at a time when the ranks of Myanmar’s hardy profession are thinning out, whether through arrests or joblessness.
Still, the current mood is one of sharing news without thinking of getting credit or payments because of the knowledge that all of them lose if the Myanmar military holds power.