How Myanmar is cracking down on press freedom during the Rohingya crisis

Following the arrests of two Reuters journalists, Mumbrella Asia editor Eleanor Dickinson speaks to Yangon-based journalist Victoria Milko about the increasingly hostile situation for reporters and foreign press in the crisis-hit country

When journalism graduate Victoria Milko first arrived in Myanmar at the end of 2015, it seemed like the country was at a turning point towards a brighter future.

Only months earlier, the once imprisoned democracy fighter Aung San Suu Kyi was elected as the de facto leader of the military-ruled South East Asian state.

As the country emerged from decades of junta dictatorship and opened its doors to the international community, Myanmar presented a goldmine of rich and untold stories to the scores of foreign journalists who flocked to Yangon.

However, 18 months of violent conflict between Myanmar’s military government and the Muslim Rohingya minority, which many have dubbed genocide, has destroyed that fleeting optimism.

And for Milko, now a multimedia editor at English-language magazine Frontier Myanmar, a climate of increased hostility  – that recently culminated in the arrests of two Reuters journalists – has left reporters and media owners living in a climate of uncertainty, anxiety and fear for their lives. She tells her story here:

When you first began reporting in Myanmar in early 2016, what was it like? 

“At the time I remember you would see cab drivers with the National League for Democracy cards on their dashboard.  People were hopeful and spoke adoringly of Aung San Suu Kyi. There was electricity in the air of hope and change that you don’t really feel anymore – in Yangon anyway.”

How has the press scene changed after conflict erupted in the Rakine State?

“Since the attacks, there has been a divide between the Burmese press and the international press. There were [local] journalists that were essentially putting out reproductions of ministry propaganda and using the term ‘illegal Bengalis’ to describe the Rohingya.

“All press in Myanmar is essentially Burmese press, unless they are pulling from Reuters or AFP.  I would say the English-language press is much more critical of Aung San Suu Kyi than the Burmese media. Every paper has its own internal policy to be fair, but I have friends who work for The Myanmar Times, who are told: ‘You will not write about this.’

“And then you have The Irrawaddy, which is founded by exiles and which many relied on for years. But in recent months it has come out with a very hard line against the Rohingyas – not using that term – while still siding with other ethnic minorities in other states. And I do not see fair reporting coming from it – and many other publications – anymore.”

And how has the Myanmar government itself pushed a tougher stance on press freedom?

“There are a lot of colonial laws – that nobody has ever heard of or have never been implemented before – that people are getting slapped with. There was one editor – a wonderful journalist – who was hit with a court case because of something he shared on Facebook. He didn’t write the article, but it was criticising the military, so he was arrested at the airport.

“With the anti-defamation laws, you really have to be careful. So for us [at Frontier] it has made us be more equal with our reporting. We try to make sure every perspective is heard so we’re less likely to be hit with a court case.

“There’s a guilt-by-association law. So once when I went to interview armed militants from an ethnic group, I had this thought that I could be charged with unlawful association just by being in the same room.

“But in addition to state censorship, there’s a lot of self-censorship too. It’s out of fear of persecution rather than being financial. It’s the fear of going to jail. The two Reuters reporters who have been imprisoned hadn’t spoken to their lawyers in five days. Their family hasn’t been able to visit them. At this point you are looking at international human rights violations.”

What are the worst penalties journalists face if arrested?

“It depends on the charges. In the Reuters case, they are looking at 14 years in prison. But it’s seemingly very arbitrary the way things happen these days. There are some who don’t even meet their lawyers until they are standing in court. Charges can be changed last minute.

“When I heard the news about the Reuters reporters my first reaction was: ‘Not another one.’ Because reporters who are our friends and colleagues have been suffering a lot this past year. At this point [the reporter community] have almost a chain-of-action for when this happens to anyone. And also how do we raise awareness of the other people who have been sitting in jail for some time now. It’s just sad that’s it’s become part of our job in some ways.”

Have you ever been threatened because of your reporting?

“I’ve faced intimidation in the field before and things like that. But we do have certain privileges as foreigners. And I’m also a white female. So most people don’t know I’m a journalist. And I think sometimes people treat you differently as a woman – for better for worse. And I have done limited reporting on Rakine, although I did a four-episode series of podcasts on the state, which got quite positive feedback from even the most hardline nationalists.

“After the August attacks [by Rohingya insurgents ARSA, leading to hundreds of thousands of civilians fleeing to Bangladesh], every foreign journalist saw a spike in hate mail and Twitter-bots following us, and calling us every name under the sun. But that has died down a lot since then. It was a terrorist attack. But as an American who saw a rise of nationalism after September 11, I could see where that zealous attitude came from and why it was directed at us. It doesn’t justify it.”

A police officer in Yangon. Credit: Victoria Milko

I understand you yourself had your reporter’s visa revoked. Do you think that was part of a direct clampdown on foreign press? 

“There are a certain handful of journalists – myself included – who have foreign resident certificates. For us working for a local media company, they give us journalist visas. Two of my co-workers had theirs’ renewed, but myself and another co-worker did not get ours. We received indications that there is not an interest in making it easy for us to renew these, and suggested we apply for a normal 28-day visa. You have to apply for these outside the country.

“Currently there are a lot of journalists in Bangkok, where many apply for these, who have wait times of up to three weeks for these. They face additional fees, paperwork and every week they have to say: ‘I will not report in this region or this restricted zone’. [The process] is being made more overtly hostile. But reporting in Myanmar without a visa or an FRC, you are playing with fire. Those journalists [from Singapore and Malaysia] who were jailed for flying a drone over Yangon parliament were also handed immigration charges.”

How do you foresee the situation for journalists playing out in the near future?

“I really don’t know. The conflict is not going anywhere. I don’t know what visa I will have in two weeks. I’m lucky I work for a local company; there are less than 10 foreign people working for local media companies. I feel sorry for my friends at the BBC who are sat at the border for weeks at a time not knowing. People who are married and have homes and lives in Myanmar, who have to leave every 28 days. A lot of international media companies have been denied visas, so fixers and translators are telling me they’re not making money anymore.”

How has this recent clampdown affected your decision to continue working in Myanmar? Are you now more determined to keep reporting there?

“For me as an American from a middle-income home, I have had a fairly easy life. I feel a sense of obligation to [report there]. People go to places like Afghanistan, where there are a bunch of journos who have worked in bureaus for years; they speak Arabic, they have a network and they get things done. Then there are newcomers trying to make a name for themselves. But what kind of effective change are they going to bring? How much are they going to raise the voices of the people who don’t have one?

“For me, after being in and out of Myanmar for two years, working consistently alongside locals for one, I now finally understand how certain things work. I have a bed of contacts who can get me to a refugee camp and I can write a story that nobody else has written. And I definitely have the most up-to-date photos of the 7,000 starving refugees on the border. To me that makes it worth it.

“But as things become increasingly hostile, it is sensible to ask yourself is it worth it. And what risks you’re willing to take. I don’t feel like it’s my time to leave yet. I work with incredible people and I feel there’s still more work I can do.”


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