Myanmar media ‘struggle to report,’ says press freedom award winner

When the Burmese military took power earlier this year, it quickly began arresting journalists, cutting internet access and revoking media licenses.

For Aye Chan Naing, executive director and editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), the coup marked a return to exile.

The seasoned journalist currently lives in Norway, where DVB broadcasts via satellite to Myanmar.

On Thursday, his efforts to keep Myanmar informed despite the risks to DVB journalists were recognized with an International Press Freedom Award.

Presented by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, Naing was honored alongside journalists from Guatemala, Mozambique and Hong Kong.

“Just making journalism, especially accountability journalism, journalism that threatens those in power is inherently dangerous,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “So we want to recognize both the work they do and the risk they take. “

Harsh environments

For Naing, the biggest challenge in reporting from exile is relying on second and third hand sources.

“It’s very difficult for us to be on the ground, so we have to depend on witnesses,” he told VOA.

“The army has arrested more than 100 journalists. And about 50 people are still being held in prison. “

Myanmar released US journalist Danny Fenster this week after 176 days in prison. But many local journalists remain in jail or face arrest, including those working for DVB.

I think this award will highlight the plight of our journalists on the ground, who are in prison, but also still struggling to report, risking their lives, risking their future, ”Naing said.

CPJ also paid tribute to Matías Guente, editor-in-chief of the Mozambican newspaper Canal de Moçambique.

Arsonists torched the offices of the investigative media in August 2020, and its staff have been harassed and threatened or prosecuted over the years.

Guente told VOA that all journalists in Mozambique face challenges.

“Mozambican journalism is very politicized… and when journalists want to address this issue, they are seen as biased and end up being victims of verbal or physical violence,” Guente said.

“The same work that wins awards overseas is not very welcome here,” Guente said, adding that while his country’s legal framework “is one of the best in Africa, in practice it is not”.

Guatemalan journalist Anastasia Mejía also faced legal problems. The Xolabaj Radio co-founder was arrested in 2020 shortly after covering a protest in her hometown of Joyabaj.

“I was deprived of my freedom for 36 days; the hearings have been postponed in order to delay the process, ”she told VOA.

A court then dismissed the charges against her. But Mejía is still afraid. “If I keep talking, they will kill me, they will destroy my family.”

Mejía said her government’s attempts to silence her would not prevent her from speaking out.

“With this award, I will continue to raise my voice, and I will continue to speak for others – for the oppressed, for the persecuted,” she said.

FILE – Democracy advocate Jimmy Lai, center, leaves a Hong Kong court on February 9, 2021.

“Extraordinary achievement”

CPJ presented its Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award on Thursday to Jimmy Lai, the jailed founder of pro-democracy media outlet Apple Daily.

Named in memory of veteran American broadcaster Ifill, the award is presented annually to an individual who has demonstrated an extraordinary and sustained contribution to the cause of press freedom.

This year it was introduced to Lai from Hong Kong by Amanda Bennett, CPJ board member and former director of VOA. The Biden administration announced last week that Bennett was its candidate for the head of the U.S. Agency for World Media, which oversees the VOA.

Lai could face life in prison in Hong Kong. His arrest was one of the first under Hong Kong’s National Security Act. Its outlet was closed in June and several of its managers were arrested.

Lower fees

The state of press freedom around the world is dire, said CPJ’s Simon.

In his 25 years with CPJ – 15 as the head of the nonprofit – Simon oversaw the release of hundreds of jailed journalists.

“The environment for independent journalism has changed everywhere, including the United States,” he told VOA. “The challenges are greater. That period of deep optimism that existed when I started this work 25 years ago, unfortunately, is no longer the case.”

“We are in a period where repressive leaders have the upper hand, unfortunately, and we will continue to see record numbers of journalists in prison around the world,” Simon said. “And we’re going to see significant challenges for journalists trying to cover stories in repressive societies.

Simon calls for stronger leadership by example from the United States

“The only thing we can certainly do, it’s really critical, is that the United States has to be able to assert its world leadership. And this is not the case now, ”he said.

Simon said despite the challenges he is cautiously optimistic.

“My optimism does not come from examining the current reality, but from recognizing what is at stake,” he said. “A lot of people around the world recognize it. At the end of the day, they support independent journalism, they finally recognize the value of what journalists do, and they are finally ready to fight for it.

Myanmar’s Naing undoubtedly sees himself as one of those fighters and is also cautiously optimistic.

“More than 10 months after the coup d’état, the army [is] never really able to silence the country and the people, and we get tons of information from all over the country, ”he said.

The military has banned Facebook, censored the Internet and restricted the use of cell phones, but the number of subscribers on DVB’s Facebook and YouTube platforms “has almost tripled” since the coup.

“The first time I left Burma in 1988, it took me 20 years before I could go back.… And I hope this time it won’t take that long.”

Eugenia Sagastume, Alfredo Junior, VOA Portuguese and VOA’s Spanish language service contributed to this report.

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