Myanmar journalists wait and watch
'Some horrible things are likely to happen," one journalist said. Added another: "They can arrest [us] anytime." A reporter predicted: "There will be a darker period for us." "I feel lost," one journalist said with a sigh. "We are unsafe and insecure."
These words from various Myanmar journalists reflect the stress they live in under since last Monday's coup by the military, which declared a one-year state of emergency in the Southeast Asian country that has been struggling to manage Covid-19.
Media professionals find themselves in an orbit of the unknown -- about their personal futures and that of their families, about the leeway the media has to do their job. What will be left of this profession called journalism, which has been around for just a decade under Myanmar's attempt at some kind of a democratic transition?
"Almost all journalists have no idea what's going to happen next," said one male journalist in this thirties, who follows issues around the conflict that has raged since the country's independence in 1948. "As always, the media will be the second target [after the civilian government] in the coup."
Journalists agree that the message has been loud and clear from the newly created State Administration Council which said some media organisations and people were posting rumours on social media and releasing statements to incite riots and create "unstable situations". It warned them "not to make such moves" and "to cooperate with the government".
Since then, Myanmar's military regime has clamped down on social media platforms Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. It ordered the internet to be shut down on Saturday, as protesters went to the streets in Yangon and other cities to protest against the coup and demand the release of the country's deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi and president Win Myint. But yesterday, the protests were livestreamed by some local news outlets.
Although there has not yet been a mass shutdown of the media, the space for journalism and open public discussion remains very tenuous.
"Its statement is a sign that journalists will be at high risk," said one female journalist. "Because of the notion that we have been targeted, all of us are anxious and avoid politically sensitive posts," added a twenty-something reporter. "The media will be the second target in a coup," said a 30-year-old journalist who has had run-ins with the military.
That the media would be targeted in a coup d'etat is unsurprising. But the damage to Myanmar's image after this coup, especially if the military goes back to holding power for years, may well be lethal in a country that has had a still-short history of independent media, and a five-decade history of military rule and authoritarianism mixed with isolationism. It is a society that has yet to fully embrace the concept of having a vibrant press.
Various groups, not least the military, still view the media as an enemy, or a partisan political actor, rather than as an institution whose work values lie in meeting the public's need to understand the world around them.
"They [the army] have never viewed the press as doing journalistic work and as the messengers of the public," recalled one journalist whose work has drawn the army's ire. "We can read their anger between the lines whenever they give press briefings, and they have very little respect toward working journalists. Sometimes, we are labelled as espionage [agents] and 'maggots' of the country."
Likewise, Ms Suu Kyi's government was not known for protecting the media, doing little to strengthen the social infrastructure for this. Under its watch, scores of journalists were sued or convicted with the aid of laws that undermine media work.
Having to look after themselves, journalists harbour some wariness toward some institutions tasked to protect their work, worried that they could buckle under military pressure.
On Sunday, the Myanmar Press Council issued a statement protesting restrictions such as the blocking of frequencies used by Mizzima News and the Democratic Voice of Burma as well as their social media pages, and the harassment of journalists, citing reporters' accounts of being tailed by security officers.
Since the coup, journalists who have been covering issues such as the Rohingya, ethnic conflicts, and military businesses have gone into high alert, choosing what they post and keeping lower profiles. A good number of journalists and entire newsrooms have chosen to ensure physical and digital safety first, focusing on being smart in a crisis situation.
Many respected journalists, now in their twenties or thirties, know about the blank screen that was Myanmar's media in decades past, but have no experience of this -- yet. "Many young journalists have no experience of coups except the 2007 Saffron Revolution," said the journalist in his 30s who reported on the conflict, recalling the monk-led protests that year.
Many, however, have gone through being harassed and sued, or served jail sentences after convictions under the Telecommunications Act and the Official Secrets Act, among others.
But does Myanmar's future have to lie in its past? This question hangs heavily over the professional media in the country.
Within Myanmar, the journalism profession all but folded up before 2010, when the military started to loosen its grip. The 1962 coup led to four decades of military rule. The crackdown on the 1988 student-led uprising led to exiled media outlets emerging in Thailand, India, Europe and North America. Access to them had been banned from inside Myanmar. For decades, these, along with radio broadcasts from overseas, were the only news sources seen as being credible.
While all this sends shivers down journalists' spines, could there be some differences this time around?
The world has changed a lot from the eighties and 2007, and even in just the past 10 years, owing to today's digital world. Totally sealing off a country is no longer easy to do. Many in Myanmar, like many of its younger journalists, grew up with the internet -- and access to the world. More than half, or 28.7 million, of Myanmar's more than 54 million people, use Facebook.
The military -- it has a "Tatmadaw [army] True News" team -- clearly finds online spaces useful too. Since the coup, the information ministry's Facebook page has carried announcements by the junta, led by Senior Gen Min Aung Hlaing.
But, as has been widely reported, the military has had more toxic uses for digital tools. It and its allies' use of online platforms to promote hate speech and violence led to Facebook's banning of 20 military personnel and groups in 2018.
Johanna Son is founder/editor of the Reporting Asean series.
Johanna Son, based in Bangkok, is a Filipina journalist and editor who covers issues relating to Asia and Asean. She has been based in Thailand for 16 years.