Like never before, Myanmar’s media are under serious threat. Private and independent news outlets and their journalists have been receiving death threats since last week for their coverage of the fighting between government troops and the Arakan Army (AA), an ethnic Arakanese armed rebel group seeking greater autonomy in Rakhine State.
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 of the conflict have dominated the headlines of local publications.
Early last 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, to their safety and that of their employees. The message can be summarized thus: “Don’t write anything bad about the AA. Otherwise, we will blast your office.”
The anonymous callers and emailers did not claim to be from the AA, but the contents of their threats are clearly related to the organization.
Threats have been made from both sides of the conflict. On Sunday, another email from a group calling itself Myochit Tatmadaw (Patriotic Army) with a subject line reading: “the last warning” hit the inboxes of The Irrawaddy and the Burmese-language services of the RFA, BBC and VOA. The email warned the recipients not to “post any text, picture, audio and video files to damage the Myanmar Army’s dignity and image when it comes to the AA. If not, you will face the same fate as Ko Par Gyi and Saw O Moo.” Reporter Ko Par Gyi was killed in custody by the Army in 2014, while Saw O Moo was a Karen community leader and environmental activist shot dead by the Myanmar Army in April last year. The sender and content of the threats were the same as those of an email sent earlier to the Rakhine-based Development Media Group by an organization identifying itself as the Pro-Army Group or Patriotic Army Group. It warned the media outlet to stand with the Myanmar Army, otherwise the safety of its journalists couldn’t be guaranteed.
Whoever is behind the threats—both the AA and the Myanmar Army have denied making them—they constitute an act of the most serious violence against the media as a whole, creating a climate of fear with the aim of promoting one-sided and biased news that misinforms the people.
Furthermore, any threat to a lawful profession is unlawful.
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. As a news organization that has always reported every issue surrounding Myanmar without fear or favor, we totally condemn these threats. Be assured, we will not be cowed by so-called “safety warnings” from anonymous messengers.
More broadly, the death threats are putting Myanmar’s fledgling media freedoms at risk. Since the dawn of the era of press freedom in 2012, the country’s journalists have never faced a shortage of threats. Buddhist nationalists have brandished knives in their faces for their strong reporting favoring interfaith solidarity in the country. The government and military have targeted them for allegedly breaching the State Secrets Act and Unlawful Association Act over their reporting and traveling in rebel-controlled areas for news gathering. Individuals and the opposition party have filed lawsuits against them for exposing their shady business deals and corruption-tainted past. Now the attempted intimidation comes in the form of “death threats” from those who allegedly support the AA and the Army. All these threats are more or less a distraction to journalists who are doing their job. If they can no longer properly do what they are supposed to do, the public will suffer—especially from exposure to the fake news that has proliferated in today’s social media-driven era.
It should go without saying that news outlets will never be discouraged by such intimidation. We understand that the threatened news outlets are preparing to submit—some already have done—complaints over the threats to the government. Serious threats against members of a particular profession have been made. The authorities concerned must take the complaints seriously, and take steps to protect journalists. Myanmar’s top leaders shouldn’t hesitate to tackle the problem for the sake of the survival of democracy in the country—especially when their watchdog is under threat of death.