Myanmar’s military junta has shut down several independent media outlets and arrested more than 80 journalists since seizing power from the elected government four months ago, stifling press freedom and the flow of information in the aftermath of the coup.
At least 45 of the arrested journalists are in prison, most of them charged with violating Section 505(a) of Myanmar’s Penal Code, which pertains to the circulation of statements, rumors, or reports with the intent to cause military officers to disregard or fail in their duties. Violators can receive a maximum sentence of two years in prison.
“Following the coup, many media outlets have been shut down, and journalists have been arrested,” said one reporter who declined to be named for safety reasons. “We, the freelance journalists, have had to stop working. It has been two months now.”
Other journalists say they are trying to avoid arrest, while others who now are unemployed say they are having difficulty making ends meet and keeping a roof over their heads.
“I have been out of work since Feb. 1 and am still unemployed,” said a former Yangon-based TV reporter who did not want to provide his name. “It’s hard to find another job — not only me. Many other reporters like me are currently trying to find any kind of job we can.”
A video reporter said he used to submit reports to independent media outlets Mizzima, 7Day News, and Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), but he became unemployed with no income after the military regime shut them down.
In early March, the military regime officially banned the outlets along with Myanmar Now and Khit Thit Media from publishing, broadcasting, and transmitting messages via social media.
Security forces also raided the offices of Mizzima, Myanmar Now, Khit Thit Media, and Kamayut Media, confiscating computers and office equipment.
Besides the mandated shutdowns, the Standard Time Daily, Myanmar’s last independent daily newspaper, stopped publishing in mid-March, citing difficulties in getting news stories during the martial-law period and concerns over the safety of its reporters.
A freelance journalist who declined to be named complained of the dearth of jobs available.
“We freelancers had no regular salaries and had to rely on our reports [for income], but now we have a bigger problem,” he said. “Now, even though we have college degrees we cannot find jobs. We started our lives in journalism, and now there are no journalism jobs.”
Some journalists have resorted to selling cameras and other equipment to earn money for food and rent, while others have abandoned the profession and started selling food online. Some female former reporters and editors have taken up jobs as textile factory workers.
“Some of us who have some money have gone into the food sector, preparing dishes and selling them online,” said another freelance journalist. “Some who have help from family members and relatives have opened small grocery stores.”
“Some female reporters have started to work in garment factories but they do not have any long-term security in this,” he added. “As for me, I had to sell my beloved cameras and PCs for money for food and rent.”
A Yangon-based TV reporter expressed hope that the employment situation would improve for journalists once attacks by security forces on peaceful protesters, other civilians, and ethnic minorities, died down, though there are no signs that that will occur soon.
“I don’t have any plans at the moment,” he said. “I think I will just lie low for a while because it will get better when the situation calms down a little bit.”
As of Tuesday, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Thailand-based monitoring group, reported that 841 people had died since the coup and 4,443 were still being detained.
Another TV reporter expressed concern over the erosion of press freedom under the State Administration Council, the formal name of the military government.
“It’s clear that we have to stand up for the freedom of the press,” he said. “That is the only help we need, not temporary monetary support. I often have sleepless nights thinking about what to do in the long run.”
Most journalists said they would not abandon their profession completely no matter how repressive the junta is.
“After this period, after changes, there will be opportunities for the media, and I will start all over again,” said a freelance journalist who requested anonymity for safety reasons. “It’s not just me. My friends will also do that.”
He went on to say that some of his colleagues have created web pages so they can continue reporting on their own.
“As journalists, we will work for the development of the media sector no matter how oppressive and repressive they are,” he added.
Another journalist who declined to be named pledged not to give up.
“I will write for the rest of my life,” he said. “When the news platforms reopen, we will write news stories again. My friends, though they are looking for other jobs, are also going to write as soon as they get a chance.”
Even before coup, Myanmar slipped one place to 140 on Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2021 World Press Freedom Index, which evaluates the press freedom situation in 180 countries and territories.
Many reforms, including the end of media censorship, adopted in the years following 2011 after a former military junta was disbanded, saw Myanmar rise 20 places in the World Press Freedom Index between 2013 and 2017.
“The coup d’état of 1 February 2021 brought that fragile progress to an abrupt end and set Myanmar’s journalists back 10 years,” RSF said. “They again face systematic arrest campaigns and censorship, and many will resign themselves to working clandestinely in order to be free to report what is happening and to evade the police.”
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