When a cyclone passed over the Bay of Bengal on May 24, American journalist Danny Fenster, 37, gazed up at the haunting skies near a terminal window at Yangon International Airport.
For a time, the threat of the Myanmar military capturing foreigners at the airport was real, but after watching international reporters leave the country safely in April, the Michigan native was more concerned about the turmoil.
He had arrived in Myanmar two years earlier, when the country was full of hope for its nascent democracy. He was leaving in a moment of violence and fear caused by a military coup. But Fenster, who kept a low profile editing stories to Myanmar border, was excited to arrive in Chicago and surprise his parents, as he continued his role as managing editor of the famous outlet.
Airport staff handed him the Covid-19 protective gear, complete with a gown and hairnet, and he texted his wife, Juliana Silva, 37, at 9.16 a.m., promising to take a silly selfie. Six minutes later a hasty text message arrived: the security forces were taking him away.
“This is not a joke,” he wrote. Soon they will take fone.
After three more inconclusive messages, his side fell silent. Silva has been unable to contact him since. “We could never imagine this would happen to him,” Silva says. “These 11 days without news have been a nightmare.”
Many Myanmar journalists are in hiding or have managed to flee the country, although most continue to cover the junta’s crimes, including the murder of at least 842 civilians, according to the activist group Association for Assistance to Political Prisoners. Since Min Aung Hlaing took power, Reporters Without Borders has recorded the arrest of 86 journalists and, as of May 26, 49 of them remain in detention.
Aung Kyaw of the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) and Zaw Zaw, a freelance reporter for Mizzima, were the most recent journalists to be sentenced. A court inside a prison in southern Myanmar sentenced them to two years in prison for incitement and spreading false news on Wednesday. Mizzima said Zaw Zaw was one of six members of his staff arrested since the coup.
Fenster is being held in Yangon’s Insein Prison, a complex infamous for torture that has been swarming with dissidents since the military seized power from an elected government on February 1. He has not been allowed to see a lawyer or any visitor, including consular officials.
When Bryan Fenster, 39, learned of his brother’s arrest, “the worst thing was having to call my mom and dad,” he said. “I intentionally kept it to myself for 10 minutes. I imagined them getting out of bed and drinking coffee; that was 10 minutes less than they had to know. “
Fenster was trying to get out of a country where journalism has been banned in all but name. Journalists were jailed for doing their jobs under the overthrown Aung San Suu Kyi administration, but the regime of dictator Min Aung Hlaing has so stifled the free press that members of the media feign other jobs to hide their occupation.
The banning of two independent news channels was one of the general’s first actions, followed by a warning to local media not to use “wrong words” as a coup and to refer to the military as a “junta” or “regime.” . Soon after, the regime revoked the publishing licenses of five Yangon-based media outlets and more across the country. Soldiers stormed newsrooms, including Kamayut Media, whose co-founder Nathan Maung, the other American citizen in Insein Prison, was arrested in a raid on March 9. He has reportedly been tortured.
Maung founded a weekly newspaper for Burmese immigrants in Thailand. He later moved to the United States, where he studied at North Carolina State University and then founded Kamayut Media in 2012 with two friends.
The United States on Thursday reiterated its concern over the detention of Fenster and Maung and called again for their release. A spokesman for the state department, Ned Price, said consular officials had made a virtual visit to Maung on May 24 and had tried to visit Fenster but the board had not allowed them access.
Safety is not guaranteed even for those journalists who manage to flee. Three DVB reporters who crossed illegally into Thailand are facing deportation after a court sentenced them to a one-year probationary period and fined them 4,000 baht ($ 128) each, said Nadthasiri Bergman, a lawyer for the DVB. Foundation for the Development of Human Rights.
The trio’s lives could be in danger if they are sent home, the lawyer said, a possibility well understood by seasoned reporters like Moe Myint, 32, who stopped sleeping at home on the first day of the coup. Already on the military’s radar due to an interview with an ethnic rebel in 2020, he says his worst nightmare is being kidnapped by soldiers at night, tortured to death, and then calling his wife to collect the body.
“The military or any ruling political party in Myanmar regard journalists as their enemies, not the fourth pillar of democracy,” said Moe Myint, who fled Yangon after the office of Mizzima, one of his employers, left. raided on March 9.
As his wife and two-year-old son took refuge elsewhere in Myanmar, Moe Myint joined another reporter on a tense trip to the territory of the Karen National Union (KNU), an armed ethnic group fighting for greater autonomy in the border with Thailand.
He shaved his head and wore glasses, passing through military checkpoints until they reached the region in late March. A month later, he left for an undisclosed location, just days before the army, known as the Tatmadaw, deployed deadly airstrikes where it had been left in an apparent response to a KNU ground attack. Back in Yangon, his apartment was raided on May 1.
“My mother was home alone,” she said. “Armed soldiers destroyed the main door and searched some documents, but they couldn’t find anything because we had already moved them.”
Against North Korea’s military propaganda, Moe Myint says local media have come to rely heavily on self-employed journalists and citizens, and should pay them accordingly. The regime has returned to the isolation seen during the decades of military dictatorship from 1962 to 2011, reintroducing a board of censorship and a press council of board affiliates, he says. “More crackdowns and darkest days for Myanmar media are ahead,” he added.
‘A gang of thieves and murderers’
This view is shared by Cherry Htike, 39, an executive editor of the Tachileik news agency, a news outlet based in Shan state and banned by the board. His team reports daily on crackdowns, bombings and other vital local information, but they pay a heavy price. Soldiers stalk them in hopes of catching a colleague off guard. They were successful on May 13, when a photojournalist was arrested after returning from a safe house to his own home.
“I worry about the safety of my team and myself every second,” she said. “Now uncertainty is part of our life.”
The advertisers disappeared after the coup, which the publisher attributes to fear of military retaliation for associating with the outlet. “We are using our emergency fund and some relief, but I’m not sure how long we can survive,” she said.
Now on the run, Cherry Htike receives words of support from her US-based sister, a journalist who fled the old regime in 2008. She also distrusts public sentiment, which, while overwhelmingly opposed to the military since the coup, has turned against the military. independent reporters. Two Reuters journalists, for example, were labeled as traitors by most people, according to the military’s narrative, and jailed in December 2017 for investigating the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys by forces. security and Buddhist civilians in Rakhine State.
For reporters who have chosen to continue working from the interior of the country, life is a minefield of danger and suspicion. One reporter, whose identity has been withheld due to sensitivities, expected the coup to be bad “but the situation has become the worst it can be,” he said.
He saw the February mass protests in Yangon disintegrate in a bloodbath and his colleagues removed their press helmets to avoid being attacked by security forces.
He moved his wife and young daughter to a new neighborhood, where he pretends to be an IT technician. He has traded in his jeans and sneakers for a traditional longyi to avoid drawing attention, and the camera parts are hidden in his lunch box when he tries to get past security points to resistance areas.
His wife quit her job at a broadcast studio after it was taken over by the Tatmadaw and now he is the sole breadwinner in the family, he says. It appears her daughter will miss another year of school after the pandemic, due to violence and the boycott of the education system under the junta.
“Everything has been spoiled by that crazy, stupid and blatant military coup,” he said. “Our lives are not safe; we have to worry about each other much more than ever. The military junta is no longer an army, it is just a gang of thieves and murderers led by its gangster, Min Aung Hlaing. “
However, the journalist is determined to stay in Myanmar and continue reporting. Other civilians are taking up arms with the conviction that a hellish future, a full-scale civil war, is necessary to make way for a brighter path: remove the military from power, once and for all.
Whether imprisoned, in hiding or leading a double life, the press in Myanmar is under no illusions. “The media here will die if they continue to rule,” he says.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism