Authorities in Myanmar have arrested over seven dozen journalists since the junta seized control of the country more than seven months ago, and the number is rising as political tensions reach a new high with the shadow National Unity Government’s (NUG) declaration of war on the regime last week.
As of Tuesday, the military had arrested 87 journalists since its Feb. 1 coup d’état and had only released 14 as part of a June 30 general amnesty that saw 200 detainees freed from detention across the country.
Since the coup, security forces have killed 1,089 civilians and arrested at least 6,477, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP)—mostly during crackdowns on anti-junta protests.
The junta says it had to unseat Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) government because the party engineered a landslide victory in Myanmar’s November 2020 election through widespread voter fraud. It has yet to present evidence of its claims and public unrest is at an all-time high.
Last week, the NUG declared a nationwide state of emergency and called for open rebellion against junta rule, prompting an escalation of attacks on military targets by various allied pro-democracy People’s Defense Force (PDF) militias and ethnic armed groups.
The declaration came weeks after the NUG announced plans for a “D-Day” operation to purge the country of the junta through a popular uprising supported by the PDF militias, formed to protect the public from the military.
Throughout its rule, the military has repeatedly vowed to clamp down on the media, including on July 12, when Deputy Information Minister Major Gen. Zaw Min Tun accused journalists of “tricking the public.”
“These media outlets are a danger to the people and traitors to the State, as they are broadcasting fake news and incorrect opinions,” he said at the time.
Zaw Min Tun called the independent media “only less treacherous than the groups they are working with,” suggesting they were aligned with the NUG and were working to “destroy the State and the economy,” but providing no proof of his allegations.
In the two months since, authorities have continued to target journalists for their work, with at least two believed taken into custody in the past two weeks alone.
Over the weekend, family members of former RFA Myanmar Service reporter Thuzar said she went missing on Sept. 1 and was likely detained.
The freelancer had been in hiding since police raided her Yangon home in March after she reported on anti-coup protests and the difficulties facing government employees that take part in a nationwide Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) opposing the junta.
“She knows her family members would be worried sick if she didn’t contact them,” her husband Ye Ko told RFA, saying he is convinced that Thuzar was arrested and had already contacted a lawyer to represent her.
“We know the authorities have been arresting journalists, but journalists will cover the news, no matter who the government is.”
Days after Thuzar went missing, authorities arrested Hmu Ein Zaw, a former journalist and current humanitarian worker, together with his wife, sources said.
Meanwhile, authorities have filed an additional charge under Article 17(1) of the Unlawful Association Act against veteran journalists Sithu Aung Myint and Htet Htet Khine. The pair were already facing charges for “committing an offense against the State” under Section 505(A) of the Penal Code following their arrest on Aug. 16.
No letup in arrests
Veteran journalist Myint Kyaw told RFA that the release of journalists in the June 30 amnesty should not be taken to mean that the junta has stopped targeting the media.
“Many people assumed that journalists were no longer being arrested after the release, but by early August they were being detained again,” he said.
“This shows that the authorities have not relaxed their policies concerning journalists. In fact, I think they are targeting journalists even more to discourage coverage of the situation in the country. Reporters need to be even more cautious these days.”
Myint Kyaw noted that there had been an internet blackout in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State after the NUG declared war on the junta last week and suggested that such a tactic could be “extended to other regions” as well.
Court attorney Khin Maung Myint, who has been helping arrested journalists, told RFA that a recent addendum to the Counter-terrorism Law which designates groups like the PDF, NUG and Parliament’s Pyidaungsu Hluttaw Committee of Representatives (CRPH) as terrorist organizations has led to the detention of even more reporters.
“The new additions in the law enable the authorities to punish anyone who is involved with groups designated as terrorist organizations, so when journalists interview members of the NUG, CRPH and PDF, they are accused of supporting or propagating for these organizations,” he said.
“They are simply targeting journalists for providing news to the people.”
Paris-based Reporters without Borders (RSF) ranked Myanmar 140th out of 180 countries in the 2021 edition of its annual World Press Freedom Index and singled out junta chief Snr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing as among the world’s 37 worst leaders in terms of media crackdowns. The country has fallen in position every year since it was ranked 131st in 2017.
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