Cover Stories and Burner Phones: How Myanmar Journalists Report Under Military Rule

From cover stories to burner phones, Myanmar’s journalists are resorting to unconventional methods to report on life under military rule.

The space for media has shrunk drastically since Myanmar’s military seized power in 2021. More than 120 journalists have been detained, the junta revoked licenses at about a dozen outlets, and other media groups and reporters now work in exile.

Those who remain say they are taking a range of precautions to stay safe under military rule.

The junta, which refers to itself as the, says media and activists are spreading “fake news.” And spokesperson Major General Zaw Min Tun told VOA in June the junta “never arrests any journalists for doing their job, as I have said repeatedly.”

But journalists who spoke with VOA described how they or colleagues have been targeted for arrest.

One of those is Win Zaw Naing, who works for the independent news website Red News Agency.

The military detained him briefly last year for his coverage of the coup. He later discovered the township police had a list of people to arrest.

“They are trying to arrest us because they want some of our sources,” Win Zaw Naing said. “They are investigating the neighborhood and the house where they [the sources] used to live.”

Under those circumstances, reporting takes careful preparation, said a journalist who goes by the alias KLT to protect his identity.

The freelance journalist has created a set of safety measures, including moving regularly. So far, he has moved at least five times in Yangon.

“When I go outside of the place where I live, I usually bring another phone which is totally private and not related to my work at all — like the contacts are only my wife, my mom, my non-journalistic friends and so on,” he said.

And when he does phone interviews, he uses secure methods.

“I make the calls to my sources through the Signal and Telegram [apps]. But at times when the sources are from the internet blackout areas, I make calls with non-registered Sim cards and so on,” he added.

The threats to journalist safety have prompted many to work undercover so they can keep reporting on the conflict.

KLT explained to VOA how he created a cover story about being the owner of a mobile phone shop to try to avoid being detained.

The journalist discussed his story with a friend who actually owns a shop. Now, the reporter said, “If there is any emergency or interrogation, I can just make a call to him and prove that I’m a mobile phone service shop owner.”

As he travels, so, too, does his cover story.

“Every time when I reach to a new ward, I let the neighbors know that I’m a mobile shop owner,” KLT said.

But even with a cover story and safety precautions, gaining access to sources is hard.

Journalists often have “zero possibility” to get out in the field, he said.

“We have to mostly work just by interviewing on phone and internet. And most of the times, it is very hard to get in touch with the sources, contacts and at times it is very hard to get a good photo or video footages,” he said.

Coverage blocked

With Myanmar’s military accused of atrocities, gaining access to witnesses and footage is vital to document what is happening.

The military has killed more than 2,020 people and detained more than 14,000, according to the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

Political analyst Aung Thu Nyein said the junta has no tolerance for “free media” in Myanmar.

“Generally, the environment of free media is shrinking,” Aung Thu Nyein told VOA. “They want to control the media outlets other than their state media.”

However, the analyst said the military isn’t the only group concerned about negative reporting.

“The opposition, especially newly emerging resistance groups, such as People Defense Force [PDF] and local defense forces [LDFs] has the same tendency, to threaten the media reporting against them and their wrong deeds."

A knock-on effect to the repression is a drop in the number of outlets still publishing.

“Some media agencies stopped working as they feel limited media freedom and see no profit from their business,” Aung Thu Nyein said. “There are almost fewer quality reports, as the quality of media agencies is decreasing and no promotion by their own agencies.”

The sharp decline for media freedoms has resulted in Myanmar falling to nearly the bottom of the World Press Freedom Index in 2022.

The country now ranks 176 out of 180 countries, where one is the freest, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Source: Voice of America