Alice Driver | Longreads | May 2018 | 11 minutes (2,616 words)
“Welcome to the Democratic Dictatorship of Myanmar,” said a slight, young woman on the street in Yangon, Myanmar. She was referencing the number of journalists in the country who had been threatened or jailed by the theoretically democratic government. Yangon is tangled roots and the shade of 100-year-old trees; it is the sound of hundreds of wings flapping as young men feed pigeons, their feathers flashing golden in the early-morning light; it is journalists imprisoned for speaking truth to power.
When I arrived in Yangon in January 2018, Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had been in prison for a little over a month. Much had changed since I had lived in the city in 2006, volunteering at an international high school with my best friend Tien, both of us living at a government-run hotel and eating Hershey’s chocolate bars out of her suitcase.
In 2015, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, swept elections, and both citizens and the international community had high hopes that she would support press freedom. At a press conference a few days before the election, Suu Kyi referenced a “communications revolution” as millions of citizens watched her via Facebook, which at that time also promised to be a beacon for democracy. Facebook arrived in Myanmar in 2011, and since that time has racked up at least 14 million users, 93% of whom accessed it on their mobile phones.
In a country where burgeoning press freedom and the appearance of Facebook coincided, media literacy has proved a challenge. During my time there in 2006, I helped students apply to colleges in the United States and Australia — basically anywhere outside of Myanmar, which at that time had a dysfunctional university system. One of the students I worked with ended up attending Berea College, my alma mater in Kentucky, which I had encouraged her to apply to since they provide funding to low-income students. Yangon University, which was once Myanmar’s most famous university, reopened for the first time in two decades in 2013. Between the lack of independent media and the lack of access to higher education during the years before the democratic opening, it didn’t surprise me that media literacy was low.
When I returned to Myanmar earlier this year, I went to the Rangoon Tea House in Yangon to meet up with Sonny Swe, the cofounder of the Myanmar Times who was jailed in 2005 for publishing a story without the approval of the Ministry of Information’s Press Scrutiny Board.. Swe founded Black Knight Media and launched the English-language magazine Frontier Myanmar after being released from serving eight years of a 14-year prison sentence. He explained, “If we look at the media landscape in general, it’s kind of scary. Social media is a disaster. A lot of people who have internet have never had a desktop or laptop before, and the saddest thing is that they think Facebook is the internet. They tend to believe what they read on Facebook.” Swe maintains a boyish face and the ability to both criticize the current government’s assault on press freedom and joke about the potential consequences of such actions. He said, “Do I want to end up in prison again? No, but then again, if I have to go back to prison, I know how to survive.”
Swe has worked in the media in Myanmar for 25 years and has witnessed the growing role that fake news plays there. “We have so much fake news. The military has their own keyboard warriors — the monks. The monks are very strong. They will do anything on Facebook. We have so-called patriotic monks,” noted Swe. Wirathu, an anti-Muslim Monk known as the “Burmese bin Laden,” was banned from Facebook in February 2018 just days before I interviewed Swe. Wirathu had used Facebook to disseminate hate speech and false information about the Rohingya among his hundreds of thousands of followers. On March 12, 2018, the United Nation’s fact-finding mission on Myanmar announced that Facebook played a central role in the ongoing Rohingya genocide in the country by spreading hate speech.
When I arrived in Yangon in January 2018, Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had been in prison for a little over a month. Much had changed since I had lived in the city in 2006, volunteering at an international high school.
Swe has seen the evolution of press freedom in Myanmar, and as he explained, “Back in the old days, in 1999 and 2000, there was no freedom of press. Every single word and line was heavily censored.” In an ironic twist of fate, Swe’s father, Brigadier General Thein Swe, who served as a senior military intelligence officer, was also a government censor. During our interview Swe joked that his memoir would be titled, “My Father, My Censor.” Swe initially believed that Suu Kyi would protect press freedom, but he admitted that in reality, press freedom had been better under the military-backed civilian government of Thein Sein, who served as the president of the country from 2011 to 2016.
I visited Swe at the Frontier Myanmar offices, where the windows were covered in curly Burmese script, leftover notes from reporters sharing ideas with each other. During the democratic transition what was lacking in Myanmar, Swe suggested, was a plan for media literacy education for citizens. “Because media literacy, educational levels and English literacy are quite low, people can’t differentiate between somebody’s opinion and ethical journalism. This is how they feel: ‘Why should I pay 200 kyat for the news I already read about on Facebook for free?’ They don’t know about fact-checking. Basically, Facebook is killing us,” Swe said. He took me on a tour of the offices and introduced me to dozens of journalists, both native and foreign, including an illustrator from Alabama who created the magazine’s cartoons and American multimedia journalist Victoria Milko, who has been reporting from Myanmar for the past two years.
Milko discussed Facebook’s influence on the media and explained, “There is nothing else that runs Myanmar like Facebook in terms of the way information is passed around, especially from a video standpoint and a photo standpoint.” She said that although organizations in Myanmar had worked to create algorithms to track hate speech, they were created to track it in English or Burmese, ignoring the many ethnic-minority languages in the country. The Facebook team in Myanmar had also tried to ban the Burmese slang term kala, which Milko described as meaning “dark-skinned person, like darkie.” Milko described the effort as ineffective because the Facebook team didn’t have enough of a grasp on the Burmese language and ended up shutting down a lot of accounts that weren’t used for hate speech.
Milko, her pale-blue eyes fixed on me as we sat across from each other at a local restaurant, explained, “There has been a massive decay of press freedom and freedom of speech in Myanmar,” admitting that she worried about how colonial-era laws were being applied to jail journalists. As a photographer, she was particularly worried about the application of the Unlawful Associations Act, which had been levied against journalists who were photographing or interviewing a group of people considered to be unlawful. She admitted, “As I’m taking pictures of these people in places that I maybe wouldn’t have the government want me being, I’m thinking to myself, ‘If I publish this photo with my name on it this is clearly tangible proof of where I’ve been and who I’ve been talking to.’ I think that stays on my mind.” In recent years the government has taken a hard line on what journalists can and can’t report on: According to Milko, “For instance, you will not report on the military. You will not report on the natural resource industry — jade, timber, and things like that.” She also discussed how reporting as a female and a foreigner was like being a “third gender,” which is something I could relate to as a foreign journalist based in Mexico. We were a category apart, and there were some advantages to that, including getting access to events or areas where local journalists had been denied entry.
On the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, Myanmar is ranked 131st and Mexico 147th — Norway is ranked first. Mexico, however, in 2017 was ranked among the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists alongside Syria and is the most dangerous country for journalists outside of a conflict zone. The journalists who are most at risk in both Mexico and Myanmar are local, which is something I constantly tell people who ask me if I feel as if my life is in danger. On a recent reporting trip, I went to Culiacán, Mexico, which is where Mexican journalist Javier Váldez was murdered on May 15, 2017. I met with Adrián López, the editorial director of El Noreste newspaper, who explained why having preventative security protocols in place is so important at newspapers. He said, “Something I always explain to people outside of Mexico is that journalists aren’t killed in battles or shootouts — they are killed outside of their places of work and their homes. They killed Javier [Valdez] as he was leaving work. Why? Because we are creatures of habit. That is why we insist on prevention.” Whereas in Mexico local journalists are gunned down and the perpetrators are rarely brought to justice, in Myanmar they are imprisoned and silenced by the government, which resorts to the application of colonial-era laws to do so. The result in both countries is the same: local journalists either self-censor or flee.
Local journalists in Myanmar, like those in Mexico, where I live, face the most serious threats of violence. Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Esther Htusan began receiving death threats via Facebook in early 2017. Htusan, who was raised in Kachin State in Myanmar, started working as a correspondent for the Associated Press in Yangon in 2013. Like many local journalists who work for international media outlets, she has experienced work-related harassment including having people follow her home from work. In early 2018, Htusan, like several other local journalists, fled the country.
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Htusan’s colleagues, including Swe who called her a “sister,” described her as petite and unassuming, but direct, forceful, and passionate in discussing her work. Because Htusan had reported extensively on the Rohingya genocide, an issue that Suu Kyi’s government has tried to deny by suppressing any related publications, she decided to publish under a pseudonym after fleeing Myanmar.
Milko talked to me about how journalists she knew, like Htusan, had received death threats via Facebook. Speaking of her own safety, Milko admitted that she had been tailed. “I’ve had people show up at my house before,” she said. “And I like to take things head-on and deliberately ask them why they are following me, and take their picture. Pictures have been used as a source of intimidation for ages here so people whip out their cell phones to take your picture and instead of shying away from it I walk up to them with my camera and take their picture and then ask their boss, ‘Why do you have these people following me?’” Milko said that there were stories that she simply did not report out of fear of reprisal from the government. “If you say something that someone doesn’t like, they can sue you instantly under 66D and you go straight to jail, and you may not get bail,” said Milko of the lack of protections for journalists.
Local journalists in Myanmar, like those in Mexico, where I live, face the most serious threats of violence.
Although many assumed Suu Kyi’s government would support press freedom, her actions have proved authoritarian in nature. I met up with David Baulk, a Myanmar Human Rights specialist with Fortify Rights who has been working on issues related to press freedom in Southeast Asia since 2012. Unlike some local journalists who were afraid to speak on the record, he was direct in addressing the role of the current government in suppressing press freedom: “It doesn’t bode well that the civilian organs of Aung San Suu Kyi’s government are hostile to us and to the media that doesn’t tow their line. It’s a perverse situation where a long-revered human rights icon has presided over a massive crackdown on freedom of expression in the country. That is what’s happening.”
When I talked with locals, they struggled to express their feelings about Suu Kyi, who they respected for her activism against the rule of dictator U Ne Win and for having endured 15 years under house arrest during the military dictatorship. During my time in the country in 2006, Suu Kyi was under house arrest, and I remember that when I took at 15-hour bus trip from Yangon to Bagan with the high school students I worked with, they mentioned that when the military offered Suu Kyi the option to leave the country freely, she refused to do so, instead choosing to continue demanding that political prisoners be freed while under house arrest. The students reflected on the selflessness of her acts, and discussed her as a role model who would make sacrifices for the good of her country. That was the impression that remained with me and one that the international media was slow to shake when faced with the reality of her role in the Rohingya genocide.
In the wake of attacks in Rakhine, there was a massive spread of fake news on Facebook, including unverifiable stories, videos, and pictures — some decades old. However, as Baulk described, “That is the nature of Facebook. They have standards about hate speech and they have standards about the content that they reprint, but if you want to understand how hate and fear and prejudice spread in this country you have to start with Facebook.” Although Facebook has said that there is “no place for hate speech” on its platform, it has been slow to rein in fake news and hate speech in Myanmar, thus contributing to a growing crisis around freedom of speech, journalist safety, and treatment of the Rohingya, a majority-Muslim ethnic group who have lived for centuries in majority-Buddhist Myanmar. “I think it is fair to say that journalists, particularly for national journalists working in Myanmar, that there is a very tangible climate of fear among them and among human rights monitors and among anyone working on issues that relate to human rights abuses in Myanmar,” said Baulk.
Baulk mentioned the uptick in the number of criminal defamation cases against journalists and media proprietors in Myanmar. For many journalists, especially locals, he said that printing stories on topics like the Rohingya genocide simply wasn’t worth the risk. International reporters had been prohibited from visiting the Rohingya for years because the community was effectively living in prisons, unable to move freely, and with limited access to education and health care. And Baulk put the blame squarely on the government for not protecting journalists or providing them access to report on human rights issues. Baulk said, “The discourse about human rights in this country could be shifted in a much more positive direction if Aung San Suu Kyi and her administration stood up for human rights — and they aren’t doing that, and they haven’t done that, and there’s no signs that they’re going to do that.”
On March 8 — International Women’s Day — I watched a video produced by Milko about a rural women’s cooperative in Myanmar working to make menstrual-health products accessible to women in Myanmar. Despite the challenges, she told me, “I’ve managed to go to almost every state in Myanmar and report at this point.” Milko plans to continue working as a journalist Myanmar for as long as she can, while Htusan is holding her government accountable for human rights abuses while publishing in exile. Meanwhile, journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are still in prison in Yangon, proving that Swe’s survival skills are unfortunately still useful.
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Alice Driver is a freelance journalist and translator based in Mexico City. She is the author of More or Less Dead, and she is writing a book on migration in Central America. She is currently producing a radio show for REVEAL from the Center for Investigative Reporting on trans women migrants.
Editor: Sari Botton