Journalists in Myanmar survived regime change. Now, they’re finding their feet as press freedom regresses.

Even with Aung San Suu Kyi’s government in power, Myanmar newsrooms are facing threats of lawsuits and prosecutions.

One would have thought that a Myanmar under a government led by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi would be one that embraces press freedom, but journalists in Myanmar say that not only has the situation not improved, it’s actually deteriorated in worrying ways.

Sonny Swe, the founder of independent longform journalism outlet Frontier Myanmar, describes the situation as “one of the toughest moments” for journalism and media outlets in the country.

More journalists and media outlets are coming under fire, getting jailed or sued for their work. This year, Myanmar dropped seven spots in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, ranking 138 out of 180 countries.

“There is an invisible line that we don’t really want to cross and it’s all about gut feeling and not knowing when we are going to get in trouble,” he tells those gathered at Splice Beta for a panel on the media industry in Myanmar following regime change.

 

A burden on the newsroom

It’s a reality demonstrated by who was not at the panel: Aung Zaw, founder of the news website The Irrawaddy, was meant to be speaking on the panel, but ended up not attending Splice Beta due to a criminal defamation case filed against the outlet by the Myanmar military for its reporting on the conflict in Rakhine state.

Such lawsuits can be a serious burden for independent media outlets in the country. Zarny Win, editor of Myanmar Now, says that the threat of such legal action means that particular stories have to go through three senior editors, just to ensure that all due diligence has been done. With Myanmar Now’s chief editor Swe Win still bogged down by a defamation suit filed by a Buddhist nationalist, these pressures can be a real drag on a newsroom with limited resources. “The situation is very sensitive now. But, anyway, we have to continue.”

“Are we safe? No,” Sonny Swe says. Every time a sensitive story is published, the newsroom is plagued with uncertainty. “We worry about when they are going to come and get us.”

 

What happened to the Lady?

Previously, when Myanmar had been ruled by the military junta, the situation was fairly straightforward: stories would be censored, and working reporters quickly learnt what they could or could not write. The scene opened up under the Union Solidarity and Development Party from 2010 to 2015 — exiled media groups were allowed back into the country, the foreign press set up bureaus, and censorship was eased. Now, with Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy in power, things are going downhill.

For outsiders, it seems confusing — Aung San Suu Kyi has been known as a human rights defender fighting for freedom in her country. How could the situation have deteriorated after she came to power?

As it turns out, journalists in Myanmar don’t know either. “This is the biggest question mark for everyone. I don’t know why she has changed so much and not saying enough,” says Sonny Swe. “I don’t really know much more than you do.”

 

Who wants to be a journalist in Myanmar?

It sounds like a tough climate — when asked about whether he feels optimistic for the Myanmar media scene, Sonny Swe’s answer is an immediate, firm “no” — but, both panellists say that there are still people who want to be journalists. With so many conflicts continuing across the country, many young people still feel motivated to go into journalism as a way to make their experiences known.

Zarny Win points to how journalists from Myanmar — Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo from Reuters — were among this year’s Pulitzer Prize winners. “So that is the quality of the journalists that we have,” he says.

For Myanmar’s media scene, the question is not a lack of talent or will, but one of space and freedom.

Kirsten Han is a Singaporean freelance journalist and writer. She's also the editor-in-chief of New Naratif. Follow Kirsten Han on Twitter.

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