Punched in the face and kicked, Japanese journalist Hiroki Kitazumi staggered out of a pro-military demonstration in Yangon on Monday, one of several reporters roughed up in the aftermath of a coup in Myanmar where press freedom is under threat.
“It was clear that the rally participants were targeting the media,” Kitazumi, a freelance reporter nicknamed Yuki who writes for Japanese media outlets, told VICE World News. “They were trying to cause mayhem.”
Myanmar was ruled by a junta for nearly five decades until a brief flowering of democracy in 2011 that ended with the detention of leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other civilian officials on Monday. While reporters were frequently harassed, intimidated, and arrested even under Suu Kyi’s administration, many fear the coup and state of emergency declared by the generals could signal an end to hard-earned media freedoms.
Practices that were the norm under the junta, including the use of pen names to protect identities, are slowly making a comeback, while violence against reporters is now a documented fact. Myanmar journalists have also been the subject of hateful posts on social media, as users attempt to quell unfavorable reports about the military.
The attack against Kitazumi occurred in the heart of Yangon during a protest at a park near city hall. A fight broke out between pro-military participants and spectators, leading to scuffles. Kitazumi estimated there were around 100 rally participants.
After being set upon by protesters Kitazumi escaped, picked up his camera, and fled the scene with other spectators. He has no serious injuries, but others weren’t so lucky. Roughly 10 journalists were reporting on the rally, some of whom were also beaten. One Myanmar cameraman had “blood pouring from his head wounds,” Kitazumi said.
Thurein Kyaw, a Yangon-based freelance journalist, was beaten during a separate protest near Sule Pagoda in Yangon while reporting for news publication Voice of Myanmar. The New York Times reported that some local journalists had gone into hiding out of fear for their lives.
The Myanmar Press Council issued a statement condemning the violence, while the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club expressed solidarity with journalists working in Myanmar and called on the military to respect media freedom.
Kitazumi told VICE World News that so far, security forces have not targeted journalists while reporting. Though wary of the current situation, he plans to communicate closely with colleagues to try and be aware of risks when out in the field.
“I’m receiving help from my friends here and relying on them for support,” he said. He added that residents of Yangon are “anxious” but they’re trying to go on with their daily lives.
Myanmar’s military, which says it carried out the power grab because of alleged fraud in November elections easily won by Suu Kyi’s party, said the state of emergency will last for a year, and in that time new elections will be held. Observers have dismissed claims of irregularities at the poll last year.
Meanwhile, journalists in the country are intent on documenting the situation as it unfolds.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen now, but I want to continue doing my job. It's a historical time. I want to report the truth,” Kitazumi said.