BANGKOK (AP) — Journalists in Myanmar face extreme peril as the military-controlled government cracks down on independent reporting, human rights and media advocates say.
The government installed by the military in a Feb. 1 takeover has criminalized many aspects of reporting and arrested dozens of journalists, driving many into hiding or exile.
Reports by the Committee to Protect Journalists and by Human Rights Watch, released this week, say dozens of journalists are being held, some without charges. Some of those detained have reported being tortured, and the increasing spread of COVID-19 in prisons has made conditions inside even more dangerous than usual.
The government of Aung San Suu Kyi that was ousted by the military had backpedaled on media freedom after a flowering of independent media when the previous military government began ceding control in 2012.
But now there is almost no leeway for anything but government-controlled reporting, said Shawn Crispin, author of the CPJ report released Wednesday.
Before the military takeover, “Myanmar had a functioning and relatively free media,” Crispin said in an interview. “You didn’t have that next level of fear. The media were allowed to operate.”
The number of journalists now being held is not exactly known since media companies are refraining from identifying some people working as freelancers, especially in regions where the country has longstanding ethnic conflicts.
Human Rights Watch, in a separate report, said 98 journalists have been arrested since the army takeover. It said 46 are still in detention, citing the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a local human rights group.
Six journalists have been convicted, five of them for allegedly violating Section 505A of the penal code, a new provision making it a crime to publish or circulate comments that “cause fear” or spread “false news.” Such information can be anything the authorities do not want to reach the public.
Some, including Associated Press journalist Thein Zaw, were detained and later released.
In June, a court released U.S. journalist Nathan Maung, who was arrested in March while working for Kamayut Media, a local online news platform. The charges against him were dropped, his case dismissed and he was deported to the United States.
Maung told CPJ he and a colleague, Hanthar Nyien, were blindfolded, beaten, deprived of food and water and otherwise tortured during interrogations in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city.
“They told me I could be dead if I did not reveal my sources,” Maung said Wednesday in an online news conference about the CPJ report. He said Hanthar Nyien remains in prison.
“He is one of us. We have to tell him he is not alone,” Maung said.
At the end of June, the authorities released about 2,300 prisoners who were charged in connection with protests that erupted after the military took control. Those released included protesters as well as journalists, but since there was no official list of freed detainees the exact number of journalists released is not known.
Danny Fenster, an American, is the only foreign journalist known to still be held, Crispin said. The 37-year-old managing editor of Frontier Myanmar, an independent online news outlet based in Yangon, was detained on May 24 while trying to board a flight to the Detroit area in the United States to see his family.
He was charged with incitement for allegedly spreading false or inflammatory information and is being held in Yangon’s Insein Prison. His next hearing is scheduled for Aug. 9, according to his lawyer, Tan Zaw Aung.
Fenster told his lawyer earlier this month that he believed he had COVID-19, but prison authorities denied he was infected.
Myanmar military officials say they are not suppressing press freedom. They say limits on publishing information are needed to prevent violence and disorder. But many Myanmar journalists now are working in secret, moving from safe house to safe house or hiding in border regions, both reports said. Many fear reprisals against their families, and some have fled the country.
The military takeover reversed years of slow progress toward democracy in Myanmar, which for five decades languished under strict military rule that led to international isolation and sanctions.
As the generals loosened their grip, Suu Kyi rose to leadership in 2015 elections and the international community responded by lifting most sanctions and pouring investment into the country.
But while independent media flourished, even during Suu Kyi’s time in office journalists were often sued for their reporting.
In the highest-profile case, two journalists working for the Reuters news agency were arrested in 2017 while covering military violence toward Myanmar’s Rohingya minority, more than 700,000 of whom fled to Bangladesh for safety. The journalists were accused of illegally possessing official documents, although they argued they were framed because of official opposition to their reporting.
They were convicted and sentenced to seven years behind bars before being freed in 2019 in a mass presidential pardon.
Worldwide, the number of journalists jailed for doing their jobs has risen in recent years, often as governments enacted laws used to suppress independent reporting.
The CPJ, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other rights groups have urged governments in Myanmar and elsewhere to, among other things, drop charges against journalists, restore media licenses that have been revoked and allow journalists to live and work without fear of reprisals.