Burmese junta, protests and media

Protesters in Myanmar have taken to the streets for almost a month now, exercising their freedoms of speech and expression against a military that exercised a coup to gain power on February 1.

Women in News’s country lead in Myanmar Khin Thandar said she has not seen anything like it explaining that people who fall in the Generation Z age group are tactfully leading the protests.

“Their strategy in the protests both offline and online is creative, they never confront the military,” she said.

The “creative” protests are in response to the junta’s own tact in dealing with the unrest. This includes an imposed curfew and a banning of gatherings in the major cities of Yangon and Mandalay earlier in the month.

More tactfully, the army has had firm control on the internet since February 4 to ensure “stability” and to douse protest hashtags such as #SayNototheCoup, #RespectOurVotes, #HearTheVoiceofMyanmar, #SaveMyanmar, and #CivilDisobedience online.

However, Thandar said civilians are always “one step ahead” in the Southeast Asian country.

“When the news of them blocking Facebook started spreading, people started sharing information on how to use VPNs to access the internet – even our grandparents use VPNs now.” Thandar said.

While the prolonged civil unrest against the military may mirror defiance, its strength cannot be underestimated and it continues to maintain a heavy-handed response to the defiance.

At least two civilians have died during the protest including a 20-year-old woman who was shot.

The military’s hold on services makes it difficult for journalists to report on the crisis. Myanmar Journalism Network executive member Zaw Htike said this puts journalists working in the country in danger and under pressure.

“Before the coup, in Yangon, some journalists including a woman were hit and disturbed physically while collecting information on the ground,” Htike said.

He added that journalists face the risk of being hit and shot by rubber bullets while covering protests on the ground.

“Many journalists wear press jackets and helmets, but security forces do not make any exception for them while suppressing the protesting,” he said.

While the coup regime in Myanmar has not explicitly gagged the media, Htike said many journalists believe it is inevitable the junta will clamp down on the freedom of speech.

On 9 February, a proposed cybersecurity law circulated among internet providers. Reuters reports that internet providers would have to prevent or remove content deemed to “cause hatred, destroy unity and tranquillity” to be “untruthful news or rumours”.

Furthermore, the BBC reported that the military warned that anyone found guilty of inciting hatred towards military leaders “by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation" will face up to 20 years imprisonment.

“A few days after the coup, media houses and journalists were informed by the military not to use the words ‘the military government that [enacted a coup]’ in their reports, and just to use the official name ‘The State Administration Council’,” Htike said.

While the anti-coup protests in Myanmar call for the release of country leader Aung San Suu Kyi and top members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party, the media environment under her helm was never fully free.

When Aung San Suu Kyi was elected leader in 2012, the Southeast Asian country went up 20 places on the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index from 2013 to 2017. However, decline is taking place, largely having to do with journalists who cover the Rohingya genocide. In the current coup crisis, RSF said press freedom is declining as far back as 10 years “before the disbanding of the junta in February 2011 allowed a free press to emerge”.

As the crisis intensifies, as civilians continue protesting and as journalists continue covering the coup, Htike said support and solidarity from people outside of Myanmar’s censorship would be appreciated.

“It would be great if the international society including diplomats, and other international and regional organisations could impose pressure on the military government not to make restrictions on the media reporting, not to sue and detain journalists for their reporting and to guarantee media freedom,” Htike said.

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