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In 2021, Myanmar journalists risked lives to tell world of coup

On March 8, journalists Nathan Maung and Hanthar Nyein went to their office in Myanmar’s biggest city, Yangon, in a bid to salvage some equipment, fearing the country’s new military rulers would soon order a raid on Kamayut Media, an online news publication the two men had co-founded.

“We thought they would raid the office in the evening or at night. If we had 30 more minutes we could have escaped,” said Maung, a Myanmar-born citizen of the United States.

“No one explained anything. They just asked my name and age, took a picture, put a blindfold over our heads, put us in a cop car and drove 30 minutes. And then our torture began,” he said.

Maung said security forces blindfolded him and beat him severely for the first three to four days. He was not allowed to sleep or eat, and the beatings only diminished after they discovered he was a US citizen. His blindfold was removed after eight days.

The 44-year-old spent three months in Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison before being released.

US journalist Nathan Maung was held at Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison for three months [File: Handout via Reuters]

Hanthar Nyein, who turned 40 on Christmas Day, remains in detention.

“I really hate to see that he’s [spending] his 40th birthday in prison, it’s very hard for me and his family. He hasn’t seen his nephew’s face yet, who was born in April,” said Maung.

Journalist killed

The pair were among more than 100 journalists who were arrested after Myanmar’s military seized power on February 1, citing fraud in the election that returned the National League for Democracy (NLD) to power in November 2020. The coup triggered widespread mass protests, which the military cracked down on using lethal force, killing hundreds of people and eventually provoking an armed uprising against its rule.

Throughout this societal collapse, Myanmar’s journalists have risked their lives and their freedoms to document the human rights abuses committed by the military.

On December 14, freelance photographer Soe Naing became the first journalist to be killed since the coup, reportedly dying during a “violent interrogation” while in military custody.

Myanmar has also been ranked the second-worst jailer of journalists in the world this year, behind only China, with 26 confirmed in prison as of December.

“The situation is even more dire than this total suggests,” said the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the group behind the ranking.

“Many journalists, among them American Danny Fenster, were released ahead of the census count after months in prison and CPJ’s research suggests there may be others in custody yet to be identified as reporters.”

Fenster, who was working for the Frontier Myanmar magazine, was arrested in March and released in November, receiving a pardon days after being handed an 11-year jail sentence.

Other foreign journalists who were arrested and released include Polish journalist Robert Bociaga, who was reportedly beaten and detained while covering a protest in Shan State in March and deported two weeks later.

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But local journalists are not as lucky.

This month, three journalists from the Shan State-based Kanbawza Tai News were sentenced to three years in prison under Article 505(a) of Myanmar’s Penal Code, a catchall incitement charge that has emerged as the military’s weapon of choice against activists and journalists.

Cape Diamond, a Myanmar journalist based in Yangon who freelances for international outlets, said reporters contributing to local media face more danger.

“The outside world does not really think they are the important ones. I don’t really see their names mentioned, but they are the ones who should be praised,” he said.

‘Fragile progress’

The February coup has upended Myanmar’s fragile transition to democracy that began with a multiparty election in 2015, after nearly five decades of military rule. Prior to the power grab, the country had taken tentative steps on press freedom, but journalists still faced many restrictions.

“We never had press freedom in Myanmar. Of course, we had a little bit of flexibility, but that was not freedom,” Diamond said, pointing out that several journalists had been arrested and prosecuted under the NLD government led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

The most famous examples are Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, two Reuters journalists who were jailed after exposing a military massacre of Rohingya in Rakhine State in 2017. Aung San Suu Kyi came under international fire when she defended the military’s crackdown on the Muslim minority group as a legitimate counterinsurgency operation, while human rights groups have labelled it a genocide.

She also personally defended the arrests of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo in September of 2018, insisting they were not jailed because they were journalists”.

She urged people to read the court judgement, which declared them guilty despite the fact that a police officer had dramatically broken down in court and admitted the reporters were set up.

While the situation for press freedom in Myanmar had been worsening prior to the coup, “now, obviously we have no flexibility at all”, said Diamond.

The watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has also said the military takeover has “brought that fragile progress to an abrupt end and set Myanmar’s journalists back 10 years”.

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‘They don’t know about us’

Today, journalists are being subjected to increasingly brutal violence by a military that is making little effort to differentiate between the media and political opponents. In addition to the arrests and the custodial torture, several reporters have been wounded while covering protests.

In March, a reporter for Frontier Myanmar was shot in the hand while covering a protest in Mandalay. In December, two journalists were wounded, one critically, when a soldier ploughed a truck into a small group of peaceful protesters in Yangon, killing five.

“They don’t care if you are a journalist or a protester,” said Diamond, recalling covering another flash mob protest where he narrowly escaped.

“When they dispersed everyone was running, we jumped into our car and we were followed by plainclothes Special Branch and our car number was noted down. So we had to keep a low profile and not go out for a few days and keep the car inside for a few weeks,” he said.

Diamond said journalists cannot carry a camera, as it makes them a target. They must also be wary of random checkpoints throughout the city as well as late-night raids. The military reintroduced laws requiring that households register overnight guests, but many politically sensitive individuals in hiding refuse to do so, opening them up to more legal threats.

When he was arrested, Maung, the editor-in-chief of Kamayut Media, said he was surprised by how little security forces knew about him, and about journalism in general.

“They arrested us and they don’t know about us. Totally different compared to Khin Nyunt time when military intelligence knew everything,” Maung said, referring to the spymaster under the previous military government.

Maung said his interrogators repeatedly asked about foreign funding and were especially angry about a Reuters article that Kamayut published on its site. He had to explain the concept of a wire service to them.

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Diamond said he had two “close colleagues” who have been arrested and released since the coup but declined to identify them. While one was also asked about foreign funding, most journalists these days are “interrogated about whether they have any connection to armed resistance”, he said, referring to the “People’s Defensive War” declared by the parallel civilian government set up in August by Myanmar’s deposed legislators.

A loose network of militias called People’s Defence Forces (PDF) have pledged loyalty to the National Unity Government (NUG) and often cooperate with more established ethnic armed organisations that have been fighting for greater political autonomy for decades. The NUG and the PDF have been declared terrorist organisations by the military.

When BBC Media Action producer Htet Htet Khine was arrested in August, she was charged under the Unlawful Association Act for allegedly communicating with the NUG. She remains behind bars.

The military has come under immense pressure to release the dozens of journalists detained in the wake of the coup. In October, when the military was excluded from a meeting of the regional bloc, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, it released some 5,000 people who were held over anti-coup protests, including some 13 media personnel.

Maung tries to remain hopeful that Hanthar Nyein might be among the next batch of detainees to receive a pardon but he does not know when that will be.

“Maybe before Christmas?” he said, speaking on December 17. “Burmese Independence Day? Maybe tomorrow or the day after tomorrow.”

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