The text below is a slightly edited version of the author’s remarks to the M20 Media Freedom Summit held online in Delhi on September 6, 2023 by the M20 Organising Committee, which comprises 11 editors from India and a former judge of the Supreme Court.
I am very pleased and very honoured to have been invited to this occasion to give a small talk. Just a few hours before this conference started, one of our journalists in Myanmar was sentenced to 20 years in jail. He was working underground, just covering the devastating cyclone in the western part of Myanmar, near to India actually. He was arrested and then charged with so many kinds of laws – sedition, telecommunication laws, defamation – all these but without any hearing. He was tried, just for a few minutes, in a military tribunal and they handed out 20 years of prison sentence.
That’s the situation facing the media in Myanmar.
Myanmar is right between India and China and north of Thailand, actually. We are located in a very strategic geopolitical belt but because of the insignificance of our country, I think we did not manage to attract a lot of international attention after the military coup in 2021.
I am 45 years old and this is the worst situation we have ever witnessed in our lifetime. What I want to say is, that we have 21st-century jet fighters making daily bombardments on rural villagers and thousands of people were incarcerated including dozens of journalists. For example, after the military coup, they raided our offices and also confiscated our houses and they chased down even the immediate family members of ours.
What I want to say is that Myanmar, as a neighbouring country of India, has turned into a country very similar to North Korea in terms of repression and brutality. A lot of brutalities are going on but just because of the insignificance of our country on a geopolitical scale, we do not manage to attract a lot of attention. I want to request my colleagues. It’s very difficult to collect news and information but I want to request all my colleagues in the media industry around the world to be able to give a little bit more attention to what’s going on in our country. You know, you cannot even go out with a camera in our country – that’s the situation.
There are two challenges facing us. The first challenge is the obvious repression, the second is financial constraint. We cannot generate any kind of revenue because we are already outlawed. All the local businesses will not want to advertise with any outlawed organisation. We receive a bit of money, sometimes substantial amounts of money, from certain governments like the US. It’s not circumstantial. A lot of contractors in the name of media development, just see us as pawns for the causes for revenue generation, just for themselves.
International development assistance is coming to travel to countries like ours in the name of media development but much of the money actually going to the intermediary media development organisations based in Europe or in the United States. We will receive only a small check. If you give one million dollars to all these media outlets in Myanmar, they will receive a few thousand dollars or maybe ten thousand dollars at best.
We only receive a very small percentage of direct support. These media organisations don’t need to do anything. They will just write contracts, and ask us to report on monitoring. They don’t need to do anything but they will give us the impression that they are working full-time. We are in a really tough financial situation. We cannot make any sort of business, we cannot get any proper support from international development etc. But I feel really grateful to the United States, that the US, the biggest country, is consistently supporting the media outlets.
Another thing I want to talk about is that any authoritarian state has their own media strategy. They will hire lobby groups in the US or in Europe etc. Now, in our country, the military has been reaching out. They have formed their own press council – a fake press council. Using this vehicle, they will reach out to the Indian Press Council, they will reach out to the Japanese Council and then in most cases they will reach out to the former chairman or the acting chairman of the press council and spread propaganda information.
That is what happened two months ago. They invited the former chairman of the Japanese Foreign Correspondent Club to Myanmar. They just gave propaganda interviews. They would even share breaking news between Aung San Suu Kyi and the Thai foreign minister. And a so-called journalist at the Japanese Foreign Correspondent Club, he has a small website, where he would write all these news pieces, and propagate the junta’s narrative.
A similar thing happened the India. They have invited the Indian chairman of the Foreign Correspondent Club to Myanmar, etc. There was some sort of backlash in India as well. The junta is doing all sorts of things to misinform what is going on in our country. So, I really want to request you to be mindful of this situation as well. Thank you very much.
Swe Win is editor, Myanmar Now, Myanmar.