Myanmar: Censorship in Journalism and The Difficulties In Media Coverage
Journalism has long been a vital bastion of freedom and information in conflict zones, and without a free press, both domestic and international populations are at risk of a distorted picture of what is all too often a dangerous situation. In the initial months of last year, a military coup sought to overthrow the government of Myanmar and state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, prompting widespread protests and demonstrations across the country. In this context, Director of news and current affairs at the Democratic Voice of Burma, Than Win Htut joins us with a keynote address, providing an insight into Burmese censorship and the difficulties that the media faces today.
Than Win Htut
Than Win Htut, as an exile Burmese journalist, currently living in Atlanta, GA, United State and continue working as a director of news and current affairs of the Democratic Voice of Burma, left Burma/Myanmar after the military coup and DVB TV was blacklisted by junta in March 2021. Have been with DVB for more than 18 years, as a director of current affairs, planning editor, sub-editor, senior reporter, interviewer, producer, TV host, debate moderator, based in Mae Sot, Chiang Mai, Bangkok of Thailand, Paris, Oslo of Norway and Yangon in Myanmar etc. From 2017 to 2021, worked as a director of current affairs - developed multiple TV segments for variety of audience groups, planning output- outcome, estimation of production cost, setting objectives and week to week project management, monitoring project implementation, mitigating risks, human resources management, budget allocations, record all measurable results back to DVB management board, leading data analysis/ visualization team on the audience engagement, demography & trending, handling feedback & feedforward from metric data insights of all the social media platforms, working with funding agencies, grants and INGOs on the multimedia PSM content creations for public awareness and policy influences etc.
This is a provisional transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
Myanmar: Censorship in Journalism and the Difficulties in Media Coverage
Broadcast on October 28th, 2022
TWH: Good morning. Good evening. Thank you very much for having me and allowing me to share our struggles against the military dictators launching the information warfare and information coup that established the digital dictatorship in our country called Myanmar … formerly called Burma.
The story begins last year …last year in February. The military coup happened on the first of February. At first, they staged a military coup in the early morning. They switched off our television channels and shut down all the telephone connections and all the internet connections. Everybody didn't know a military coup was happening but were asking each other …there’s no internet, there's no phone line, and all the TV stations were blacked out. So this blackout and all the disruption started from the very day one of the military coup and all of our journalists were struggling to continue our reporting by the internet. We rushed to some international hotel with a good internet connection and we managed to use the satellite television to bypass the militarily controlled broadcast stations. And right after the coup, all the students, all the young generation… we call them Gen Z, Generation Z… walked out to the streets. Hundreds and hundreds of cities across countries filled… all the streets were filled with hundreds of thousands of protesters… demanding for democracy, for human rights, and to reject the military coup... and also asking for the International Community, the United Nations, to intervene… to help us in the beginning.
Everybody… including journalists, activists, protesters… everybody was using secure communication channels like Signal, Telegram, ProtonMail to bypass the interception and monitoring by the military. And we've been struggling, everybody was struggling with the internet slowdown and the disruption all the time… and then the military sped up the crackdown against the protesters and all the journalists and media workers. Then they sped up the arrest of key leaders and key media personnel. We have been in exile, now, over the last 30 years. We used to be… many of our journalists used to be… underground journalists and to keep a low profile. But in the last 10 years… after the military opened a little bit the door of democracy reform… many of our journalists returned to openly running our video work, and that makes it quite difficult for us to keep a low profile again. And because many of our journalists are well known by the neighborhood… that he or she is working with the Democratic Voice of Burma… the main… the enemy are the military junta. And many of our journalists got arrested. Military personnel, security personnel using [over-force], raids at night, arrests, and torture.
That forced many journalists, including our channel, our media, into hiding in many different cities. And many of us needed to relocate to the Thai/Burma border. Otherwise we keep fighting, we keep communicating with all the networks across the country through the internet and through secure communication channels and applications. The military also shutdown Facebook… but we got to use… we got to circumvent… by using VPN. We have to hide ourselves. Being arrested in Myanmar… Burma… could literally mean a death sentence. Because we've been seeing hundreds and hundreds of activists, journalists, opposition groups, and protesters killed during the torture sessions and the interrogation sessions. Now, so far… since last year in February… now it's already eight months… one year and eight months already… more than 2,300 were killed in prison and interrogation centers. Over more than 15,000 of the protesters and activists and journalists were arrested. Particularly, more than 140 journalists were arrested …intentionally using information technology as a weapon to oppress people, to crack down on the journalists and activists.
And then they also use the telecom providers as a part of the weapons of information warfare. They shut down internet connectivity and most areas where the resistance groups were chatting… the Facebook protest to the armed struggle… they call themselves a People's Defence Force (PDF). So in many of these conflict areas, particularly in middle Burma, the south east corner of Burma, and then the north west corner of Burma, people lost internet connectivity and many research organisations mentioned that more than 50 towns across the country were currently affected by the internet shutdowns. And then the… in the beginning everybody was very reluctant to use the military run telecoms… it's called Mytel… and then also the government run telecom MPT Myanmar Post and Telecommunication. And the people prefer international telecoms like Telenor and Ooredoo. You know, we have a 52 million population but there are more than 52 million subscribers in the different telcos… the MPT Myanmar Post and Telecommunication is leading, having more than 20 million subscribers; Telenor follows with 18 million subscribers; Ooredoo with about 15 million. …Many people boycott Mytel, which is run by the military junta and Vietnamese army. But in some areas people found that only Mytel telecom is running and the rest of the telcos, like MPT, Ooredoo or Telenor, international telecoms, are not available and the people need to… you know… switch to Mytel. They've got no choice.
So telecom centers are also being weaponized by the military censors, and have been from day one. And the military censor is increasing their tactic to crack down against all the netizens… all digital resistance… and the media people they beat up, you know, again and again, in the digital censorship, digital dictatorship, internet coup, information coup. And whatever we use… VPN and any internet place available… in every military checkpoint, many of our journalists have to be very very careful or they remove the application, VPN or Facebook or Messenger, whatever they check, because as soon as they’ve found the VPN or Facebook application, Messenger, Signal, Telegram, you are subject to arrest. Being arrested means… as I told you earlier… being arrested can literally mean a death sentence.
You could be killed at anytime in the torture sessions at interrogation centers. So we have got no choice. We have to be very careful to use VPN, Signal, Telegram, Protonmail… but one thing we cannot manage is telephone SIM cards. Now, according to research groups the Myanmar military has already installed interception technology into many different telecoms, and that was the one of the main reasons that the Norwegian telecom, Telenor, had to move out of Myanmar business, after they refused to accept the order to install interception technology for all mobile SIM card users. So we've got no choice. And people felt a little bit secure using Telenor and Ooredoo but, you know, after Telenor moved out and Ooredoo moved out of the country, they handed over their business to the military-related cabinet …and many of our journalists had no choice but to avoid MPT and Mytel, which are run by the military junta. The military also launched many propaganda and fake news pages on Facebook and Twitter and Telegram, and many different media outlets. But all the Burmese netizens reported this as fake news. They just pop up, they appear, and then a few days later they disappear, removed by Facebook and some other social media. So, information warfare has been happening all the time between the military oppressors and the Burmese netizens and resistance group
Many of our journalists very often get arrested during night raids. They check out all the telephones; they check out all the applications… you have no choice to… you know… you cannot avoid providing the passwords for applications and the password of your smartphone. And all the metadata they can check. So many of our journalists have been taking serious risks And so our journalists manage to move location from time to time. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it’s… well… dangerous. And many of our journalists have been changing their SIM cards. In the market, you know, many SIM cards… many different SIM cards are available. Even though now officially you have to register your real ID and real name… but in reality, people don't want to register their real name. So that's why many of our journalists have been changing their SIM cards from time to time, changing their locations, and worrying that the nearest tower can track you down… you know, where you are, what you are talking about, which number you are communicating with. And then recently many of our journalists were facing a new challenge, which is, you know, the blocking of Mobile Banking applications. Like when people transfer money from a mobile application to other people, or sometimes for fundraising of resistance groups …and people transfer money mostly enabled by applications that they've been monitoring. And some of our journalists using mobile applications near the border …where they use roaming by the foreign telecoms internet provider... their mobile applications were, you know, suddenly frozen and they lost their money. They lost their money and their account. This is happening over the last month and we didn't know… we didn't know of other options to avoid the new warfare of the military junta.
The military junta has also introduced a cyber security law. By this law, as soon as you are found to be using a VPN or other secure channels you are subject to arrest and sentenced to three years in prison. And recently the military junta is also introducing MTube to replace YouTube and also another application to replace Facebook, something like the different social networks used in China and Russia. We assume that the military junta has been provided with interception technology and hardware equipment by China and Russia, who have been helping the oppressors. …And many of our journalists and resistance groups were getting arrested and being tortured and getting killed. …So far we are not very sure if there's no other option than changing mobile SIM cards from time to time. Now recently, the military junta announced in the newspaper that you need to register right away… you need to register with a real ID or a real name or otherwise they will freeze your SIM card account and they will take all of the top-up money in your account… but we've got no choice.
The military has obviously stepped up the information coup… the digital dictatorship… against all the netizens and media personnel. We estimate there are more than 20 million Facebook users… all of them are becoming a target for the digital dictators at the moment and many conflict areas are also suffering internet slow down or internet blackout. Out of 330 thousand, more than 50 thousand… some estimate almost 100 thousand… are suffering the internet blockage. And recently many of the activists and the resistance groups were calling for Starlink, run by SpaceX, [to be deployed] for Burmese resistance groups suffering from the operation of the military junta. But we don't know yet how Starlink will be answering the call, our desperate call, for Starlink internet connectivity.
Yes… it is like playing a game of cat and mouse so far. So far we're not sure how many more of our journalists and netizens will be arrested and tortured and get killed. We're not sure yet. It seems the international community were obviously busy with the Ukraine war and many other things happening in the U.N security council and, you know, Taiwan issues, and we… many Burmese activists and resistance groups and all the media journalists were feeling quite abandoned by the international community and their lack of attention, lack of action, and so we don't… we don't know how the Burmese… the Spring Revolution… will be facing more and more challenges from the oppression from the military dictator… the digital dictator.
Yes… please pray for us, please share the word about what is happening inside Myanmar and how people lost their life. Millions of people are already displaced in our country. Millions and millions are suffering …the economic slowdown, the poverty and food shortage, and millions and millions more will be suffering time to time. So please pray for us. And please share the word about what you know about the Burmese Spring Revolution, the Burmese Spring movement, how Burmese journalists and the activists and resistance groups are suffering the serious crackdown of the digital dictators after the information coup.
Thank you very much.