By Shawn W. Crispin / Senior Southeast Asia Representative
Myanmar’s military regime has doubled down on its repression of journalists as it tightens it grip on the country following its democracy-crushing coup on February 1, 2021. After arresting scores of journalists to block coverage of its abuses and resistance to the takeover, its second year in power saw the handing down of harsh prison sentences in a bid to silence and eliminate the country’s few remaining independent media outlets.
The Committee to Protect Journalists’ annual prison census has found that at least 42 journalists were imprisoned in Myanmar for their reporting as of December 1, a repressive 40% rise on the number recorded by CPJ on the same date in 2021 and making it the world’s third-worst jailer of journalists behind Iran and China.
Nearly half of those detained were sentenced in 2022, most under Article 505(a) of the penal code, an anti-state provision that broadly penalizes “incitement” and “false news”, both ill-defined terms in law and arbitrarily interpreted by military-influenced courts to hand down two- and three-year sentences. Others were given harsher, longer sentences on terrorism and other anti-state charges, often for contacting or reporting on the activities of anti-military armed resistance groups, including newly formed “people’s defense forces”, or PDFs, which the junta deems as terrorist organizations, as well as decades-old ethnic armies fighting for autonomy and rights.
Myanmar’s figure could be much higher. Many news organizations remain reluctant to identify their detained staff and freelancers to avoid the harsher sentences often meted out to journalists, particularly those who work undercover for military-banned media or who claimed to stop working for their news organizations after the coup but continued to report secretly.
Since the coup, the regime has periodically released journalists held in pre-trial detention or serving sentences as part of broad prisoner amnesties. That included a November 17 release in which at least eight journalists were freed, including Japanese documentary filmmaker Toru Kubota, who was serving a 10-year jail sentence on sedition, immigration and other charges.
The releases, where certain news organizations’ journalists are shown lenience while others are forced to serve their full sentences in severe prison conditions, appear to be aimed strategically to obscure the number of journalists the junta held at any given time and sow divisions among independent media groups, editors at news organizations with jailed journalists said in interviews with CPJ.
“The independent media has been targeted since day one after the coup. It’s as if they prepared a list of editors and reporters to go after,” said Aung Zaw, founder and editor-in-chief of the independent The Irrawaddy. “Some were released [while] some were charged with high treason, terrorism, electronic crimes – all sorts of allegations that don’t make sense at all,” he added, noting three of his organization’s reporters were behind bars as of December 1.
Aung Zaw, a former CPJ International Press Freedom Award recipient whose publication was banned just weeks after the coup, said the regime seeks to “divide and rule” the independent media, claiming that certain news organizations are allowed to operate unperturbed in de facto exchange for publishing “pimping propaganda” and “echoing what the regime says.”
Indeed, independent news groups that report from the conflict’s frontlines have been singled out for harsh harassment. Mekong News, a Shan State-based online news outfit covering crime, politics, war, and ethnic issues, has borne the brunt of the junta’s repression with three of its journalists, namely Maung Maung Myo, Toe Aung and Htun Than Aung, now behind bars.
“Obviously, the junta’s campaign of jailing journalists aims to stop independent news reporting on its abuses and activities,” said Mekong News managing editor Nyan Linn Htet, who is currently in hiding from an arrest warrant issued in March and whose reporters now live and operate in exile or from underground inside the country. “But, in my opinion, it is not succeeding because independent reporting hasn’t stopped and has even become stronger than before the coup.”
In an early September show of solidarity, 33 independent local news groups issued a statement condemning a new press council formed since the coup which they jointly accused of “spreading misinformation” and “propaganda messages” about Myanmar’s independent media while noting 140 journalists had by then been arrested since the military seized power.
(CPJ emailed Myanmar’s Ministry of Information for comment but did not receive a response.)
The statement, which said that 11 independent media groups have had their publishing licenses revoked since the putsch, also said: “The military council is suppressing independent media groups and journalists in Myanmar in many different ways, impeding the right to information and hinder freedom of the press and freedom of expression throughout the country.” Some have found other ways to continue publishing, from exile and underground bureaus inside the country.
Several of the statement’s signatories, CPJ’s 2022 census shows, are among the outlets that have reporters languishing behind bars or were previously held and released.
“Imprisonment is routine for military regimes [but] this action represents severe suppression of freedom of the press,” said Kanbawza Tai News editor-in-chief Zay Tai, who told CPJ two of his released reporters, both freed in early October, plan soon to resume their news reporting. “The military can try but will never be able to stop our independent journalists.”
CPJ Senior Southeast Asia Representative Shawn W. Crispin is based in Bangkok, Thailand, where he has worked as a journalist and editor for over two decades. He has led CPJ missions throughout the region and is the author of several CPJ special reports.