Myanmar Media Outlets Threatened over Rakhine Coverage

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 4 April 2019

YANGON—The Irrawaddy and several other independent media outlets in Myanmar have received anonymous threats since late last week over their coverage of the ongoing fighting between the Arakan Army (AA) and government troops.

Clashes between the AA, which seeks autonomy for Arakanese people in Rakhine State, and the Myanmar Army (or Tatmadaw) intensified early this year following the rebels’ attacks on police outposts in northern Rakhine State on Jan. 4. The government announcedlast week that there had been 103 incidents of fighting between the Tatmadaw and the AA since January, resulting in the deaths of 12 civilians. The Myanmar Army admitted there had been casualties on both sides.

Since mid-March, the two sides have accused each other of opening fire on civilians. The Tatmadaw claims such incidents occur because AA troops try to mingle with local residents.

The civilian causalities have dominated the headlines of local publications.

Early this week, prominent local media including The Irrawaddy, Eleven, 7 Day, the Voice, Mizzima and others received threats, either verbally by phone or digitally via fake email accounts, over their coverage of the fighting in Rakhine.

On Tuesday, Yangon-based Eleven Media reported it had received more than one email on Monday threatening employees’ safety regarding their coverage of the AA.

An email sent to Eleven reads: “AA is not a terrorist organization but fighting for the Rakhine fatherland. Media outlets have to stop [spreading] wrong information that could lead to misunderstandings between the AA and Rakhine, and other ethnic people. If it does not, news outlets will face damage. We can’t guarantee the safety of media houses and their reporters. If there [appears] anything bad about AA despite our warnings, we will blast your organization.”

Shortly before other media outlets received the threats, security staff at the The Irrawaddy office received a threat from an anonymous phone caller on Saturday night. According to the threat report submitted to the editorial team on Wednesday, a male voice on the other end of the line said sternly: “You guys have to watch out. We will send you bullets very soon. Wait and see.” Then the line went dead.

The Irrawaddy has reported extensively on fighting between the AA and government troops since the outbreak of clashes in January, presenting views from both sides, as well as follow-ups on local people displaced by the fighting.

None of the threats claim to have originated with the AA, but their contents are clearly related to the organization.

In December, the AA sent warning letters, each accompanied by a bullet and the official AA stamp, warning the recipients—including a police station head, village administrator and a businessman—against disturbing those who are “implementing the Way of Rakhita”— a concept with self-determination at its core.

Last month, the head of Taung Nyo Police Station in Mrauk U Township was shot dead by an unknown gunman. The victim and another police officer at the same station were sent warning letters accompanied by a bullet from the Arakan Army (AA) on Jan. 6.

U Ye Ni, The Irrawaddy Burmese Edition’s senior editor, said the threats were aimed not only at journalists, but at anyone seeking the truth.

“We won’t be deterred by the threats. We will inform the Myanmar Press Council, Ministry of Information and President’s Office as well as international journalists associations about it,” he said.

Apart from national publications, the Rakhine-based Development Media Group has also received threats from an organization identifying itself as the Pro-Army Group or Patriotic Army Group, calling on the media outlet to stand with the Myanmar Army, otherwise the safety of its journalists couldn’t be guaranteed.

Both the AA and Myanmar Army have denied making threats.

The threats were made shortly after the AA invited members of the media on a tour of the conflict areas on Friday.

Shawn Crispin, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Southeast Asia representative, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday that CPJ calls on both the Myanmar government and Arakan Army to respect the right of journalists to cover the news without fear of reprisal.

“We are alarmed to hear of reports that anonymous actors have threatened news groups over their news reporting on the conflict. We call on these threats to stop immediately and unconditionally.”