Myanmar: Exiled but not silenced

Burmese journalists living in exile since the military coup are watching their country and media crumble from the outside, but they still fight for the truth to be told, writes Lara Pagola.

Photo of Myanmar press. Supplied

The crisis in Myanmar has seen scores of Burmese nationals flee or attempt to flee the country or go into hiding. Those lucky enough to escape remain in necessary exile, including many journalists. The International Federation of Journalists spoke to Toe Zaw Latt, operations director at the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) who escaped with the help of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and relocated to Melbourne, Australia. Saw Blacktown, a reporter for Karen News, is living and hiding on the Thai-Burma border. 

DVB was originally founded in 1992 as an exiled media outlet in Oslo, Norway, but following media reforms introduced after the 2010 elections it was ‘invited’ back to Myanmar in 2012, where it was based in Yangon for nine years. Toe Zaw Latt makes it clear DVB is no newcomber to military crackdowns on media outlets. “We are used to operating in exile, and now we are back to square one because the media profession, especially independence media, is very restrictive,” he said.

The endurance of journalists like Toe Zaw Latt is evident. Amid the chaos being instilled in the lives of those in Myanmar, reporting is still at the forefront of what is important for the country’s independent journalists. “There is not one single second that we are not reporting,” he said.

The tech lifeline

As a result of the suspension of licenses and fear, many media operations are turning to online platforms to publish their work. DVB continues to produce content despite the licence of their Yangon station being revoked by the military on February 8, 2021. 

With Facebook followers jumping in the country from 13 million to 16 million since the military junta took power, the demand for independent media in Myanmar is evident. Both Facebook and YouTube are fast becoming popular spaces for news that the military has less control over. Karen News also uses the platforms to publish its work, but has suspended its monthly hard copy journal to avoid having its licence revoked. “Thanks to technology we stay alive,” said Toe Zaw Latt 

As the coup continues indefinitely, journalists living in exile are experiencing new challenges to reporting. Getting sources is increasingly difficult, not only because of the coup, but also because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Toe Zaw Latt says sources inside Myanmar are scared.

Saw Blacktown agrees and speaks of the fear sources now face. He said sources are not scared of giving information, but rather they fear being identified. Further, the pandemic is restricting the movement of journalists, making it difficult to get primary information from inside the country when one is restricted by the border controls.

This is not the first time Myanmar has been under military rule, and its not the first time these organisations have had to work under pressing circumstances. “It has become very difficult, but we are quite experienced … we know how to get information out of a ‘closed’ country,” said Toe Zaw Latt says sources… inside Burma are scared,” said

Discarding dangers to survive

Possessions easily become a last priority for journalists fleeing Myanmar, but they are also an unnecessary danger. “I left everything,” said Toe Zaw Latt. “You have to leave everything behind, cross the border, stay alive, and keep reporting. That is our primary function. More importantly we don’t want to be silenced. This is what the army wants. They revoke license, they target us, they imprison us, but of course we are not silenced and that is why we continue broadcasting whenever we can,” 

Then there is the process of re-establishing media elsewhere.

“For our offices we established inside we [now] need to bring out the important equipment and appliances in a discrete way. Since the coup, the target was not directly to media organisations yet, but at that time we foresaw what was coming,” said Saw Blacktown, “So we brought out things before things got worse, but we still have our other office space that we left behind … and all the identifying signposts that we put outside our office, we had to take them down for security reasons.”

Reporting from the outside

Living in exile presents its own challenges for journalists used to being in the field and reporting on news first hand. 

When speaking of his new challenges in exile, Toe Zaw Latt said: “Here are the challenges; the time difference, we had to set up a studio, I need manpower, I need technology. But I am still in a better position compared to my colleagues.”

Saw Blacktown knows his situation is infinitely better to that of his colleagues that remain in Myanmar: “’I’m better off than those operating deeper inside the country. All the time when we were operating before we still kept our operations office on the border where I mostly worked from - those inside have a more difficult situations than me.”

Toe Zaw Latt said, “There are a lot of things that you want to do but you can’t.” 

Obtaining legal documents when residing in a new country has become a serious issue for journalists in exile. Toe Zaw Latt spoke of the mass amounts of journalists on the Thailand-Myanmar border that lack adequate legal papers.

“As an ethnic news organisation it is hard to establish ourselves as a legal entity so you have to operate in a sort of low profile [way] and sometimes you cannot do everything you want to do,” said Toe Zaw Latt.

To speak to sources inside Myanmar has become impossible, and carrying out your work has become extremely difficult, especially for photojournalists and video journalists. 

“We often cannot secure fresh footage for news reports and we have to rely on freelancers, or seasoned journalists, or stringers, then they have the issue of getting the materials to you because of the internet problem,” said Toe Zaw Latt. 

Saw Blacktown and Toe Zaw Latt both referred to a lack of relief, despite being in exile and away from the threat of prosecution, while there are still people left behind; colleagues, family, and friends. 

“It is not satisfying, looking from here, and even if you take a positive view, that you can still report on what’s happening inside the country, you still have to rely on secondary sources. It is mixed feelings,” said Toe Zaw Latt.

The media's military shift

The media landscape in Myanmar has evidently shifted in accordance to military legislation and the crackdown on journalists. 

“There is no longer freedom of expression, no longer an independent media space. They don’t tolerate different versions of the truth, only their truth,” said Toe Zaw Latt

The shift has seen the ongoing demise of the media industry, as media houses continue to shut down the longer the military are in power. Some media houses have opted to go underground than remain under the military spotlight. 

“Burma is going to back to the old dark-age of censorship,” said Toe Zaw Latt. “But we are never silent, the DVB has existed for 29 years, we have experience of the military, we know what their attitudes are towards the media. We know how to work under this system”

There are currently only two papers that are not state papers still being published and one does not publish names. The army’s media outlets treats independent media as a strategy on the grounds of propaganda. 

“It is a total disaster for media because you know that your life is at risk as long as you are doing your job. All the infrastructure that supports your work, like the internet, and other equipment are deemed dangerous,” said Saw Blacktown, “But for us, since we started from exile, it is like going back to that day when we started. We can say that we stay trying to adapt to the situation, but it is hard to go back to this age as the world is developing so fast and you cannot rely on this to do your work, so it is a big setback for [independent] media in the country.”

Individual support still needed

Toe Zaw Latt said DVB is currently attempting to establish a Bureau in Melbourne, and is in the process of lobbying the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to bring more journalists from Myanmar to Australia. 

As an Australian citizen, Toe Zaw Latt is encouraged by this. DFAT assisted in bringing him back to Australia. Toe Zaw Latt said the support of journalists by international organisations and unions is of extreme importance when the military is unlikely to listen to the pleas of anyone. International government support is crucial particularly in assuring the safety of journalists still in the field. 

“If you are serious about democracy and human rights then you should support,” said Toe Zaw Latt, “Regional support, like ASEAN and Australia, is important to keep independent journalists and democracy alive in Burma – it is the fight for democratisation.”

Saw Blacktown called on the vital need for support for journalists safety as well funding support for journalist families. He is advocating for technology support to be provided to assist those still in Myanmar in producing content. 

“It is hard to say that international media organisations can advocate directly to the junta because they won’t listen,” said Saw Blacktown, “[Journalists] need to be supported in a way that they can work in a more discrete way, so some sort of technology in terms of getting our information safety without being tracked. Also there are many journalists in prison where they may have family back home - this may be an area international organisations and media groups can help in trying to support the family of journalists as well as helping with legal issues and costs.”

Toe Zaw Latt said he needs help in Australia to establish a DVB Bureau in Melbourne. Losing commissions on his work and funding overnight has been a great challenge. He said international organisations and unions must also provide support for journalists in exile to help them establish themselves and their work in their new place of residence. Toe Zaw Latt hopes the Australian government will bring back the ABC Burmese program. 

Journalists continue to struggle, both in exile and within the country. What has become clear, however, is that independent media will not be silenced. There is a hunger to persevere against the odds. Those in exile have a vital role to play to keep the truth flowing and that must be supported.

Lara Pagola is an international relations student from UNSW and reported and monitored the situation in Myanmar from July to August 2021 through the IFJ’s advocacy internship program.