May 21, 2015

Muckraking in Myanmar: Press Freedom “Can End Tomorrow”

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Saw Yan Naing takes notes during in a reporting trip to Kachin State, northern Burma. (Photo: J Paing/ The Irrawaddy)

Burma is one of the world’s champions of media censorship. The Committee to Protect Journalists recently ranked my country as No. 9, while listing Eritrea and North Korea as the most censored countries worldwide. Should I be proud of this?

Ironically, yes. Burma, also known as Myanmar, was ranked No. 2 in 2006 when I started working as a journalist, so this ranking is an improvement. At that time, the country was ruled by dictator Than Shwe, a retired general who led the Burmese Army, also known as Tatmadaw.

Enemy of the State

Newspapers inside Burma did not dare to criticize his regime and its poor human rights record. Than Shwe’s regime imposed heavy censorship and all editors and publishers inside Burma had to submit articles, commentaries, pictures, cartoons to the state’s censorship board before publishing them.

Since I was based outside of Burma while I was working for The Irrawaddy, I was able to cover controversial issues like politics and human rights. The Irrawaddy was founded in Thailand after several Burmese journalists were exiled. Due to our independent reporting, the paper was branded by the regime an “enemy of the state.”

However, after the quasi-civilian government began running the country, it abolished censorship in 2012 and many exiled journalists returned to the country.

Journalists began to practice independent reporting, and ran pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi on the front pages of their publications, which they dared not to do when the country was under the military regime. Foreign journalists are now allowed to travel and do reporting inside the country. These are the positive changes in the media arena that I don’t deny. This is something that I never expected.

Invisible Limits

However, I still worry that Burma could go back to No. 2 anytime. The government recently arrested and jailed students, activists and journalists. There are invisible limits on press freedom, especially when it comes to reporting on military affairs and the Burmese Army.

The CPJ report pointed out that the Burmese media remains tightly controlled despite the absence of pre-publication censorship. The law regarding printers and publishers still bans news that could be considered insulting to religion, disturbing to the rule of law, or harmful to ethnic unity. Publications that violate the law could lose their license. National security-related laws are used to threaten and imprison journalists who report on sensitive military matters.

In July 2014, five journalists at the independent weekly newspaper Unity were sentenced to 10 years in prison, reduced later on appeal to seven years, for reporting on a secretive military facility allegedly involved in chemical weapons production. Another three journalists and two publishers at newspaper Bi Mon Te Nay were sentenced to two years in prison last year on charges of defaming the state due to publishing a false statement.

I focus my writing on conflict between the Burma Army and ethnic rebels in minority regions, and I feel there is no safety for journalists like myself who travel to remote areas to cover the conflict. I wanted to visit northeastern Burma and write about drug addiction, the narcotics trade and human trafficking, but I never made it. I’ve always been hesitant to identify myself as a journalist while traveling in conflict zones where both government army and ethnic rebels are deployed. I sometimes was not able to take photographs even though I wanted to.

Hidden Cameras and Conflict

In March 2001, I went to cover an earthquake in Shan State, eastern Burma, where the government tried to conceal the causalities. I had to use some undercover tactics to report on what was happening. I hid my phone while visiting a hospital and recorded video secretly. The hospital was full of injured people. Instead of releasing information about casualties, the government army guarded the hospital and refused to allow journalists and photographers to visit the hospital.

The practice of investigative journalism in Burma depends on the personal approach of each reporter. For safety, I make sure that local friends accompany me when I visit sensitive and risky areas for reporting. I observe conditions, people, and the level of the risk before making a decision to go to a certain place. I make a backup plan and use it when I find myself in a hard circumstance.

I set a tight time-frame for my work. I try to finish interviews, photography, and observational reporting within that period. I keep my eyes open, and leave the field when I smell a risk.

When I traveled to cover the jade trade in Kachin State — in northern Burma under mixed control of Burmese Army and ethnic Kachin rebels — my friend and I hid cameras and recorders on the way to the field. We didn’t identify ourselves as journalists or photographers when our vehicle was inspected by Burmese Army checkpoints. We also didn’t spend long or get noticed as journalists when we visited areas where drug trafficking and other criminal activities were in operation. We identified ourselves only to our interviewees. We traveled with local friends who could help us in case we faced problems or attacks.

In November 2010, I was deployed to the Thai border town of Mae Sot, which borders the Burmese border town of Myawaddy, to cover fighting between the Burmese army and ethnic Karen rebels. I built trust with Karen rebels before going to the field. I collected as much information as I could before going to the field.

I also used that strategy across the border in Thailand when I covered a crackdown on anti-government protesters in Bangkok in 2010 with several friends. The protesters were not friendly to reporters and photographers as they felt the media reported negatively about their activities. Some of them had weapons — sticks, knives, and even guns. In the middle of an interview with one woman, her husband slapped at her face and asked us to delete all the photos we took. We stopped the interview and deleted some pictures and moved on.

I got the sense that it was becoming unsafe and decided to leave. However, a friend working as a fixer for a foreign media agency decided to stay. One hour later, I heard a breaking news report that a journalist was attacked by the protesters — and it was my friend. If I was there, I would have been attacked by the protesters, too, I told myself.

The next day in a different location, other reporters and I went into a protest camp where the Thai army and protesters confronted each other. Snipers hid in tall buildings overlooking the streets. The anti-government protesters drove and walked into the banned zone, shouting and burning tires.

I decided to enter the forbidden zone. I could see government troops deployed opposite us. About 15 minutes later, we heard gunfire coming from the top of nearby buildings. The sounds appeared to come closer to us and everyone started to run.

It felt like the shooting was following me. I took cover between two buildings and waited for my friend. A short while later, we decided it was best to leave the area. See my report from the front lines here.

An Unpredictable Future

Based on my experience, Burma’s policy on media freedom is unpredictable. The government still lacks a systematic and transparent policy when dealing with journalists and their work. I feel like the government can take actions against journalists based on personal motivations and not in accordance with the law.

Government officials unexpectedly take serious action when they dislike a single word in the reporting by journalists. They also want the country to be called Myanmar instead of Burma, and Yangon instead of Rangoon. If we don’t follow their rules, they can end our press freedom overnight by restricting our work and movement.

Working as a journalist in Burma, the press freedom I enjoy today can end tomorrow without warning. My worry is that Burma could go back up the list anytime.

Much of this story originally appeared in Alfred Friendly Press Partners and is reprinted by permission. 

Press_Partners_Web_051-150x150Saw Yan Naing, 30, is an ethnic Karen journalist from Myanmar who is currently on a  fellowship with the Alfred Friendly Press Partners, interning at the Jewish Journal. He can be reached at

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