Myanmar journalists take cover during a flash mob protest against the military coup near Sule Pagoda in central Yangon on May 6, 2021

Myanmar journalists take cover during a flash mob protest against the military coup near Sule Pagoda in central Yangon on May 6, 2021

When soldiers finally swarmed the offices of Mizzima Media in March, the building was empty. Its editors had already taken the computers, cameras, microphones and notes and vanished into different corners of Myanmar. It had taken weeks for the new junta to blacklist them, but the staff had begun packing on day one.

“We were, in our minds, always thinking, ‘One day the military will come back,’” says editor-in-chief and managing director Soe Myint.

While the old regime stifled the free press swiftly and decisively, Myanmar has a new generation of journalists and independent publications, and the new junta seems uncertain about what to do

Soe Myint had seen it all some 3o years before, when decades of resentment against Myanmar’s socialist dictatorship finally ignited on Aug. 8, 1988. The 8888 Uprising, as the widespread, pro-democracy protests came to be known, led to the collapse of the government, but in its place rose a military surveillance state that kept democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest and brutally snuffed out any dissent. Dodging the censorship board and an omnipresent police spy network, journalists smuggled drafts out of the country in the soles of their shoes and used contraband satellite phones to deliver news to the wider world.

An election was held in 2010, and for a brief time it seemed Myanmar had finally achieved democracy. But in February of this year, the military reclaimed power. Police rounded up journalists by the dozens and forced them to sign agreements not to cover the protests, and the new junta revoked the licenses of five major outlets. A few simply closed, but others continued to publish underground.

“Exile is in our DNA,” says Soe Myint, who is currently in hiding. “The military wanted to destroy us, wanted to kill us. We are still alive. Alive and better than ever.”

And yet, while the old regime stifled the free press swiftly and decisively, Myanmar has a new generation of journalists and independent publications, and the new junta seems uncertain about what to do with them. It banned some media outlets yet left others alone, seemingly at random. It has arrested four foreign journalists (two of whom have since been released) so far, but most international outlets haven’t been publicly denounced. It shut down cellular data but fiber connections, though restricted, remain open, allowing citizen reporters to circulate information and photos online. It outlawed the words “junta,” “regime,” and “coup,” but a military spokesperson quipped — on the record — that if they enforced that rule there would be no media left.

“Honestly, I have no idea what will happen,” says freelance journalist Mratt Kyaw Thu. “It’s like an apocalypse for the media.”

Mratt, who became a reporter in 2010, was among those charged with “spreading news to affect State stability.”

“I wrote about what would happen if communications staff joined CDM,” he explains, referencing the nationwide Civil Disobedience Movement. “I spoke about how the whole broadcast [system] would collapse.” At the time of the interview, Mratt was sheltering with an ethnic nationalist militia, but he has since escaped to Spain, where he is seeking asylum. His Facebook page, Mratt’s Channel, has become a kind of grassroots news network of its own. Mratt’s network of colleagues and amateur stringers do phone interviews using burner SIM cards and then find a working fiber connection to send their notes, using a VPN and an encrypted messenger like Signal or WhatsApp. The system works, but it’s unreliable, inefficient, and makes even simple fact-checking a grind.

Worse, people are reluctant to speak with journalists — or even stand near one on the street — as they are terrified of being arrested in the night after some reporter posts their photo to Facebook or Twitter. “If you post something online or do a livestream on Facebook, people will say you’re giving information to the military,” Mratt says. “So, you have to take pictures and ask questions very secretly.”

One major publication, which has gone underground, published a photo of members of a newly formed resistance group. Their faces were blurred, but police were able to identify the hotel in the background. Troops raided it the next day. On social media, the publication was branded an “informer” — a new slur for spies and journalists alike. “It’s the same as in the ’90s, except in the ’90s, not even one person dared to talk to us,” says Than Lwin Htun, Burmese service chief for U.S.-funded news service Voice of America.

Than Lwin Htun, who is based in Washington, D.C., recalls a 1992 phone interview conducted for the BBC. The woman, an opposition political aide, had just been released from a year in prison. “After I talk to you, I will be arrested again,” she told him.

She was picked up the next day.

As disappearances and nightly arrests — now captured and documented on social media — resume, Than Lwin Htun is determined to protect VOA’s sources. But avoiding the “informer” label is more complicated than simply masking faces and withholding names. Just attending military press conferences, which Than Lwin Htun insists his team do, has drawn the ire of activists and other journalists.

“Most of the young journalists now, they hate the military. They are in a boycott mood. They don’t want to seek any interviews,” he says. “They say, ‘Why should I be fair against this brutal military?’ They are ready to pick up on anything given by the opposition side. For example, if somebody says the military shot and killed 80 people on the street, they don’t want to verify. They are not hesitant to write straight away.”

He doesn’t blame them. As of early June, 87 journalists had been arrested and 51 were still in detention. One has been formally charged and could be sentenced to three years in prison. After initially facing deportation, three reporters who fled to neighboring Thailand are now in a third country where they are safe.

It is hard to remain objective and do due diligence when your friends and colleagues are being arrested and you could be next. Yet fairness and objectivity are about self-preservation as much as duty, according to Than Lwin Htun.

“It would be very disgraceful to be kicked out because of some mistake we should have avoided,” he says.

In 2006, when an established contact had a source claim a storm wiped out an entire village near the southern coast, VOA couldn’t get official confirmation. But the source was strong — allegedly a relative of one of the victims — so they ran the report. The next morning, Than Lwin Htun says photos were published in multiple outlets of the supposedly devastated village under the headline “VOA fabricates news.”

“They are laying these traps all the time,” says Than Lwin Htun.

Even reporting from exile, Swe Win, editor-in-chief of Myanmar Now, urges his team against “activist journalism.”

As he explains the concept, Swe Win sounds more like a professor than an editor, using terms like “universalities of humanity” to describe objectivity and shared experiences. He developed his philosophy in prison, where he spent seven years after being “caught red-handed with a stack of subversive leaflets” in 1998, he says.

There, he witnessed what he calls a “poisonous groupthink,” a ripening of both hatred and dogmatism within his fellow inmates. But in journalism, he saw a balance between passion and honest dialectic — at least, in theory. “As long as your work is based on truth, you can still contribute to the fight for political causes. But the resistance must be based on truth,” he says.

In practice, journalism kept its activist trappings. When the National League for Democracy (NLD) took power in 2015, it could do no wrong in the eyes of the press. But as the honeymoon phase ended and criticism grew, it simply shunned or became actively hostile to the media. In some cases, Aung San Suu Kyi appeared to tolerate police suppression. “You are fighting a monster, but you can also easily become a monster,” says Swe Win.

Soe Myint agrees with Swe Win’s criticisms, but he doesn’t tell his staff to avoid activist journalism. He finds the entire discussion absurd. “I have never understood the term ‘activist journalism,’ which is particularly used in the West,” Soe Myint says. “If someone is fighting for freedom, and you call that ‘activism,’ then it may be activism. You need to fight for this space.”

In 1988, while photographing demonstrations for an underground student paper, a soldier took Soe Myint’s camera after shoving him into an armored truck, where he watched peaceful protestors get mowed down, even children in their school uniforms. “I saw the killings all day, from morning until night,” he says. “The next day I left for the border to take up arms.”

He received military training from ethnic Karen rebels planning to help overthrow the junta with weapons and support from abroad. But no weapons came, and Myanmar faded from global headlines. In 1991, he fled to India and eventually founded Mizzima Media, using his network of activists and “outlaw” journalists to spread news of Myanmar to the wider world.

For Soe Myint, taking up arms and founding a magazine were both acts of rebellion in a fight that never really ended; even when he returned home in 2011 and his publication was welcomed by the new civilian government, Soe Myint never trusted Myanmar’s democracy. Now that armed thugs are once again deciding what people can and cannot say, he says there is no room for compromise, objectivity or dialogue. You cannot work in a space where someone asks you to write certain things. So, if the military regime asks you not to use the word “coup” and you comply with that, he declares: “You are not a journalist.”

Having once worked for Mizzima, Mratt talks about those who didn’t follow Soe Myint into exile: the now-jobless reporters with spouses, children, rent, and electric bills. Some still write for their former publications, but the pay is low, and the work is dangerous. “Mizzima [editors] have left the country. Some [are] in Thailand, some in [Karen rebel] territory. They escaped the shit and are somewhere safe, but they left journalists in Yangon to report for them. It’s shit for those journalists,” Mratt says.

News magazine Frontier Myanmar decided to ease up on its on-the-ground coverage when the situation in the country grew too dangerous. The outlet hasn’t stopped reporting on the protests, but it has also added more business stories and broader analysis to the content mix.“We are not avoiding anything, we simply aren’t going to give bullets to someone who is going to shoot us,” says Frontier’s co-founder, CEO, and publisher Sonny Swe. “I don’t want to see my reporters going to prison.” [Disclosure: I worked for Frontier from 2015 to 2019]

Sonny Swe got into media as a businessman, not an activist, but he isn’t afraid of prison. After co-founding his first company, The Myanmar Times, he spent much of the 2000s in jail for a seemingly politically motivated censorship violation charge. But he also doesn’t share Soe Myint’s cynical view of Myanmar’s legitimate media. Brief as it was, democracy produced a new generation of publications and reporters who came into journalism as a legitimate institution. That institution is worth salvaging, Sonny Swe says: “We want to remain on the surface. We don’t want to go underground. We don’t have exile DNA.”

Since the interview with Sonny Swe, Frontier managing editor Danny Fenster, an American, was arrested at Yangon International Airport. “We do not know why Danny was detained and have not been able to contact him. We are concerned for his wellbeing and call for his immediate release,” a statement from the magazine read.

No other staff members have been detained, and the magazine is publishing as usual — for now.

Even if the industry survives, nobody is quite sure what its future will be. Soe Myint predicts a stark divide between professional journalists and state propaganda, with nothing in between. Than Lwin Htun sees the emergence of a tightly-controlled digital space akin to China’s Great Firewall. Sonny Swe says the real threat is simple economics: Even before the coup few news outlets were profitable, reporters were under-trained and underpaid, and the pandemic had pushed the industry to the brink.

But reporter Su — who requested their real name not be used for personal safety — believes the crisis could actually inspire the next generation of reporters, as the 8888 Uprising inspired veterans like Soe Myint. Su got into journalism not to fight an oppressive regime or uncover the truth, but because they thought “journalist” meant “police intelligence”: “I watched Charlie’s Angels, Angelina Jolie movies, so many spy movies. I wanted to become one of them.”

The young generation has something the exiled journalists of the ’90s and ’00s lacked: the memory of democracy

Now, targeted by the military and shunned by the public, Su and colleagues have come to rely on grassroots networks of young amateurs who set up social media groups to exchange information on the protests and police crackdowns in the early days of the coup. Soon they began funneling this information to professional reporters, protecting themselves with VPN connections and single-use SIM cards.

Trusted by their local communities, but also too obscure to be targeted by police, these “citizen journalists” may define the next era of Myanmar press. But the young generation has something the exiled journalists of the ’90s and ’00s lacked: the memory of democracy.

Su and colleagues have spent their entire careers with basic protections for free speech. If press freedom wasn’t quite what it was in the Global North, at least they didn’t have to worry about being dragged out of their apartments at night for what they published. Their generation isn’t fighting for a distant dream. They had that dream, and now they want it back.

“So many citizen journalists have appeared now,” Su says. “Before, many youths were not interested in the news, but now they want to know the news because they want democracy. They are fighting for democracy, and they want to show the news to everyone. I don’t know if they are interested in the field of journalism or not, but this is what they are doing.”

One of Su’s volunteer colleagues is Ya — also not this person’s real name — who had barely read a news article to the end, let alone written one. Ya told Su that after the coup, Ya began to devour news from both local and foreign publications, combing through their archives to gain a better understanding of the political situation.

When Ya began to send amateur reporting to local news outlets, the pieces were modeled on those in Mizzima, The Irrawaddy and Democratic Voice of Burma — legendary exile publications from an era Ya’s peers barely remember. Ya hopes to learn the journalism trade one day, if things ever return to normal.

Until then, Ya will have to learn on the job.

“Of course, I’m afraid of being arrested. I’ve nearly been arrested,” Ya says. “But if I don’t do this, our news won’t reach the media. No one will know what is happening in our country.”

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