On February 1, a few hours after Myanmar’s military coup, the team leaders of media group Mizzima held an emergency meeting in Yangon.
The outlet’s senior journalists had begun devising a back-up operating plan days before the putsch, as rumours of the approaching takeover spread.
When the military seized power, it was clear that Min Aung Hlaing’s junta would revoke Mizzima’s licence and block its television signal and its journalists were forced to go underground.
“Either you are going to stick with Mizzima, fight together risking your life for at least two years, or you won’t work for us,” Soe Myint, editor-in-chief, told staff.
Within a week, most had left their offices and homes and scattered to hide-outs around Yangon and other cities. More recently, some have moved to areas of the country controlled by armed ethnic groups that have long fought the military and are lending support to urban activists resisting the coup. By the time troops raided Mizzima’s head office on March 9, no one was left.
The company has about 80 staff, freelancers and volunteers working in hiding, in ethnic areas, or India and Thailand. The group recently published a clip of its journalists editing on laptops in a jungle tent and reading and broadcasting via satellite from an undisclosed location in Myanmar.
“This is our plan for the next two years,” Soe Myint told the Financial Times. “We can’t depend on just one area, and we can’t drop the channel for security or whatever reasons.”
Thann Htike Aung, a journalist with Mizzima, was one of six reporters working for the organisations to be arrested © AFP via Getty Images
The company’s flight into urban hide-outs and rebel redoubts is happening at other news groups, as the country’s media are forced to report on post-coup unrest under increasingly gruelling conditions.
The reorganisation is also an indicator of the determination of Myanmar’s anti-coup activists to support a so-called spring revolution against the junta, as well as a growing tactical alliance between activists from the country’s ethnic Burmese centre and rebel groups in Kachin, Karen and other minority states.
Soe Myint confirmed Mizzima was operating in two ethnic states, which he declined to name. A court in India’s Manipur state this week granted sanctuary to two of the outlet’s reporters.
The junta has arrested dozens of reporters, including from the Associated Press and the BBC. Authorities last week also charged a Japanese journalist for allegedly spreading false news.
More than 40 journalists have been detained, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The military regime has taken further steps to quash the independent press, announcing a ban on satellite TV receivers and ordering Myitkyina News Journal, an outlet in Kachin, to shut.
Myitkyina News Journal produced one of the most arresting images of the coup, when a nun pleaded with troops not to shoot protesters. Her gesture failed to stop them from opening fire and killing two demonstrators © Myitkyina News Journal/AFP via Getty Images
Troops have fired at people filming them, and police regularly search reporters’ and activists’ phones during spot checks or arrests. Journalists acknowledge their ability to work is increasingly compromised.
Swe Win, chief editor of Myanmar Now, another site ordered to close by the junta, said this week on a panel organised by Vice, that “a huge percentage of original reporting has been wiped out since the coup”. He added that the country was on the brink of becoming “another hermit state” akin to North Korea.
“They are going to shut down all independent and private media inside Burma,” Thar Lun Zaung Htet, editor of Khit Thit Media, told the FT. “We need help and support.”
Khit Thit Media was founded in 2018 and also faced legal threats from the military under Aung San Suu Kyi’s deposed government, which itself was internationally condemned for prosecuting journalists and critics.
Khit Thit’s website was knocked out of service shortly after the coup by cyber attacks that the company blamed on the military. Thar Lun Zaung Htet is in Thailand and eight of his journalists inside Myanmar are in hiding to avoid arrest.
For Myanmar media groups, reporting clandestinely or from exile brings a sense of déjà vu, as some got their start in Thailand or other neighbouring countries when previous military regimes ruled the country from 1962 to 2011. Then, as now, they set up cell-like organisations inside Myanmar and abroad, sharing information with colleagues only on a limited basis to evade authorities.
Soe Myint co-founded Mizzima in New Delhi in 1998, operating in India and Chiang Mai, Thailand in its first years. It was one of the earliest media groups to return to Myanmar in 2011 when the democratic transition started.
The group is determined to return to its home base from its jungle operation. Before eating dinner, Mizzima’s journalists recite four pledges out loud, including a vow to “remember the sacrifices” of staff in detention, and this: “We will meet again in Yangon.”
Additional reporting by Eli Meixler in Hong Kong and Than Win Htut in Thailand
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