In Myanmar, Citizen Journalists Step Up As Junta Targets Traditional Media

The new “CJs” are playing a critical role in documenting abuses.
April 28, 2021, 8:19am
Myanmar boat protest
Anti-coup protesters hold up banners on the Yangon River in this March 25, 2021 image by citizen journalist known as Khin. Photo courtesy of Khin

With a small handheld camera and a spare phone hidden in her underwear, Myanmar citizen journalist Khin is extra careful venturing outside to document protests against the coup.

“It’s getting harder to cover the demonstrations,” she told VICE World News in March, as lethal crackdowns spread. Like others interviewed for this piece, she did not want to use her full name for safety reasons.

Security forces started dispersing protesters before she had a chance to arrive, and began using more brutal tactics to crush dissent, killing more than 700 people since ousting the civilian government on Feb. 1. Taking photos with her phone can also backfire as she can be mistaken for an informer. 

But she wants to keep attention on the crisis through persistent coverage.

“I want to continue my role as a documenter in this revolution,” Khin said. “The only thing I fear is people will go back to their normal lives.”  

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In the months since the takeover, the junta has raided newsrooms, revoked the licenses of prominent news publications, and arrested at least 71 journalists. As of this week 46 remain behind bars, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. The crackdown on the press has crushed the halting but significant media freedom gains since the country began a transition to democracy a decade ago. Authorities have also imposed sweeping internet restrictions and barred international journalists from independent access to the country.

But a new generation of citizen journalists, or “CJs” as they are informally known in Myanmar, has entered the struggle, using social media platforms, smartphones and older technologies like radios and pamphlets to spread information.

“I want to continue my role as a documenter in this revolution. The only thing I fear is people will go back to their normal lives.”

Many have no traditional background in journalism. 

A former activist, Khin went back to school to study anthropology a few years ago. She enrolled in a photography course late last year only to help her with her research project, which was cancelled after the coup. On the morning of the power grab, she woke up to a series of Facebook posts fearing the worst about what was happening. She called a family member who was active in local politics to verify the news.

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After the coup was announced on state television, Khin tried to get in touch with her activist friends, one of whom told her about a major demonstration against the military happening in a Yangon township in a few days. She went, and the full reality of what was happening to her country settled in.

“After I came back home from the protest that day, I realized this is not just any other political crisis,” she said.

Apart from covering protests, citizen journalists have filmed security forces killing, beating and using forced labor. Experts say the evidence could be vital in attempts to hold them accountable for abuses in international courts.

“Their work is not in vain, these videos and photographs are showing the tactics of oppression used by the junta,” said Myanmar specialist John Quinley from monitoring group Fortify Rights. “Some of the photographs and videos could be used in the future. For example, international justice mechanisms are in the process of collecting and preserving evidence of crimes in Myanmar for future prosecutions.”

One advantage of citizen journalism is that almost anyone can do it. Videos have been taken from balconies and behind openings in curtains, often at great personal risk as soldiers prowl the streets nearby. 

But it has also drawn people into the fold who have some overlapping skills. With the coup disrupting countless professions, many CJs have simply transferred what they learned in previous jobs. 

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In one part of Yangon, Thet, a 20-year-old photography student, has been going out with her friends and instructor to cover what’s happening on the ground. Before the coup, she was interning at a film production company. 

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Protesters in the early days of the anti-coup movement in Myanmar in February, 2021. Photo: Thet

Now she scrawls personal information on her arm in case she needs to be identified if injured or worse.

“Whenever I go out on the streets, I write my name, blood type and emergency contact (for me, my father's phone number) on my hand in case of emergency,” Thet said.

Citizen journalism isn’t new to Myanmar. In 2007, it was a critical part of the coverage of the Saffron Revolution in the country and the violent military crackdown on protesters. But that was in an era of text messages, blurry cell phone quality, and footage that needed to be smuggled out of the country. Today’s CJs use encrypted messaging services, Twitter and other easy-to-share platforms. While Myanmar authorities have restricted mobile internet data, it has not stopped the flow on social media.

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A peaceful vigil by candelight in Yangon. Photo: Thet

The hashtag #WhatsHappeninginMyanmar has been a key driver of the Twitter coverage. It has been mentioned in more than 100 million tweets over the past 12 months, according to the social media platform.

One account, Latt Thone Chaung, is run by a collective of filmmakers and videographers. It has been documenting forms of creative protest in Myanmar through visual storytelling. The founder, Maw Kun Thit, said the close-knit network came together with a shared vision to film the events after the coup happened. 

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Their videos include interviews of front-line protesters and even poems as a means to give perspective on the creative resistance. But with the escalation in violence, it is getting more difficult, and the team has to decide when it is safe to go out. In February, they filmed almost every day, but that has declined significantly.

“All the power to my videographers who take risks going out to film especially with the escalation of violence in recent weeks,” Maw Kun Thit said in March. “They are the real heroes.”

As the death toll and arrest numbers rise, Khin has also stepped back.

“Many of my activist friends have been detained and a lot of them are hiding in safety,” she said.

She only leaves her home strategically after getting tipped off about any events. One time she had to hide inside an apartment after getting back from covering a protest because the military was waiting outside to arrest her.

“I have not gone out in four days. These days police and soldiers are targeting any people who are on the streets,” Khin said.