It has been nearly three months since Myanmar's military seized power in a coup on Feb. 1. The takeover not only removed a democratically-elected government and gave rise to widespread human rights abuses, it also erased hard-won press freedom gains.
Over the last few months, dozens of reporters have been detained, independent media outlets have been stripped of their licenses, and journalists have fled the country.
For a detailed overview of the press freedom crisis in Myanmar (also known as Burma) VICE World News spoke to Editor-in-Chief of the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), Aye Chan Naing. DVB is one of the main news outlets in the country, and the new junta has tried hard to censor it.
DVB moved back to Myanmar only a few years ago during a brief flowering of democracy after operating from exile for decades during previous eras of military rule. Today, DVB’s Facebook page alone has more than 16 million followers, and it reaches even more people via satellite TV. After the coup, they are being forced back underground along with most independent media.
In this interview, Aye Chan explains the exhilarating but brief period of media freedom in recent years, what has changed since the military seized power, and what they are doing to adapt. It has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE World News: How have things changed since the coup?
Aye Chan: Media freedom has deteriorated every day. It’s going in the direction of North Korea-style total blackout. The military is intimidating not only journalists, but public individuals who film during their crackdown, and they are shooting demonstrators. They are going after individual Facebook pages and charging them. Everybody is in danger. It’s turned into some kind of war zone. Absolute power is in the hands of troops on the street. They can shoot you, they can kill you, they can arrest you, they can rob you. It’s a total imbalance. They do whatever they want. It’s a total disaster nightmare for people in Burma. It’s not only in Yangon, the big cities, it’s all over the country.
Are your journalists safe?
We have so far three people who are now in prison. The rest are working very discreetly, and some of them left [the country]. It’s a very dangerous situation, simply because they make it illegal for us to operate.
How has the situation complicated your news gathering?
It’s harder to get verified facts. To get news is much more difficult, partially because mobile internet is completely cut off, and they are regularly cutting off use of fiber internet every night. Some people don’t want to talk to the media any longer or they don’t want to use their face or their names.
How long did you operate outside the country before, when DVB was an exile media outfit?
Until 2012. So it’s been 20 years. And then we were operating halfway between Thailand and Burma. It’s only been three years since we completely moved back to Burma. In 2012 we set up the first DVB office in Yangon, and we operated legally inside the country. We did try to [assess] the situation and decided to move back completely after Aung San Suu Kyi’s government came to power [in 2016].
What was the main difference between the previous decades and the changes over the last 10 years in Myanmar?
When we were living in exile, most of the sources that we relied on had to use the telephone to get information out from Burma. But sometimes news happens somewhere where we don’t have any sources. So we had to call people randomly, looking at the telephone directory. At the time, some people hung up the phone the minute we said we are calling from the Democratic Voice of Burma. Lots of people were pretty scared talking to us.
“It’s really important that when you’re isolated, when you’re being bullied, when you’re beaten down, any kind of encouragement, any kind of moral support, any kind of solidarity message will help us keep on fighting. I think what’s really important is that we feel like we’re not alone in this fight.”
At the same time, we also got lots of letters from people inside Burma. Some people, instead of writing Democratic Voice of Burma, in order to post it, they wrote Democratic Boys of Burma, so the post office would not really understand [laughs]. We got lots of encouraging letters from inside Burma. Email was used but not so widely, not like now. Mobile phones were very expensive inside the country. Communication was really hard, people were scared, but people really hungered for independent news.
I still remember one of the audience members that wrote to us, saying, “In Burma, we don’t survive by just breathing the air, we also survive by listening to your program... We need that for our survival.” It was really heartbreaking. Some people said, “You know more about what’s happening in our country than we do. In Burma, we don’t even know what’s happening in our backyard.”
After 2012, when the country started opening up, were you surprised at how fast things changed?
We were quite surprised that they [the military] switched from total complete control to more freedom of the press. But we knew that we could not completely trust them. At the time, they were trying to show the international community that they were committed to democratization in Burma. And they needed to show proof. I believe they used us as proof. For us it’s a win-win situation, they use us and we also use their words. “You’ve been telling the international community that you’re changing so you have to give us complete freedom.” That was the whole deal. We said we wanted to move back to Burma, but we don’t want any kind of control over our broadcasting, and they agreed to that. So that was the main reason we moved back.
It was incredibly encouraging to find out that there were lots of followers, there were lots of people who watched our TV programs, listened to our radio programs. And some of our colleagues who were on TV and radio, the public would come up to them and say hello to them and take a picture with them. They recognized them. Amazingly, when they got in the taxi and started talking to the taxi driver, and the driver hadn’t seen their face yet but just listened to their voice, they were recognized. That’s how much they were following us. It was heaven for us doing news at the time.
Things got better for press freedom, but what were some of the difficulties in that transition period?
At the time it was more and more free. But still, when it comes to the military, their human rights abuses, their attacks against ethnic villages, or against Rohingya people in Arakan [Rakhine] state, it’s hard to report. Since we are in the country we can be easily accused of libel laws and all these different regulations that aren’t friendly to the press.
When it comes to the Rohingya issue it was very hard to get access. We were never allowed to travel freely. So it’s a very limited kind of situation. There have been many kinds of threats… that also limited us and what we could do. But apart from that... we could speak quite freely.
After the coup, does it feel like you’ve gone back in time?
It feels like 20 years back. They are trying to limit the people's use of the internet. In 2000, the internet was very difficult to get and expensive, and it seems like they want to go back to that kind of situation. During this uprising there is no sort of leadership, it’s a very loose alliance, and everything is coordinated online. They start to worry about all the documentation of their brutality against civilians. They don’t want any proof left behind.
Does it remind you of past decades of junta rule you spoke about, when people were hungry for information?
Yes. People are really looking for news and information, and they want to know, especially now, not just what is happening in their hometown but also in other parts of the country. But I think people are a lot more proactive when it comes to sending out news today. Even myself I’m getting lots of video clips, photos, news stories sent to my email address, and the same with my colleagues. They are trying to help media organizations to spread what’s happening in their own towns and cities. So people really want the news and information out.
Your TV station is planning on broadcasting international messages into the country on World Press Freedom day next week. Why is that important?
I think when you are in a situation like we’re facing in Burma, people are feeling down because we are fighting against a brutal regime that has no mercy, no sense of humanity, and you need any kind of support from outside the country. It’s really important that when you’re isolated, when you’re being bullied, when you’re beaten down, any kind of encouragement, any kind of moral support, any kind of solidarity message will help us keep on fighting.
I think what’s really important is that we feel like we’re not alone in this fight. It really helps.
You know, like when you’re locked up in prison, like a dark cell, sometimes when you disobey, and when you’re in the dark cell, even a tiny little light, you can see it as a big light.