‘We’ll keep reporting, whatever the risk from the junta,’ say Myanmar’s journalists

To avoid arrest, the staff of the 74 Media left their home city, only to face shellfire in their border refuge. The editor describes the risks faced by his media outlet

Shweeeee … Boooom. The noise of the exploding artillery shell startled me awake in the middle of a July night. Dazed, I stumbled out of bed and tried to check on the other journalists with whom I share a dormitory. As we ran outside, another shell flew overhead.

It was five months after the military takeover in Myanmar and three months since we had been forced to relocate from the Kachin state capital, Myitkyina, to territory held by a group known in Myanmar as an ethnic armed organisation (EAO), fighting for self-determination for an ethnic minority state near Myanmar’s border with China. Now this territory was being bombed. We were all terrified; some of my staff were crying as they looked to me for guidance and comfort.

This was neither our first nor last brush with danger. Since the military seized power on 1 February 2021, small local media outlets such as mine have faced immense risks and hardships just to survive.

In February 2021, Myanmar's progress towards democracy was brutally stalled when the military seized power and took control of the country.  

In the year since, the country has been plunged into violence, poverty and mass displacement as the military attempts to crush widespread resistance to its rule. 

Internet blackouts, arbitrary arrests, a ruthless curtailing of freedom of speech and escalating military attacks on civilian areas have silenced the voices of people from Myanmar.  

For this special series, the Guardian’s Rights and freedom project has partnered with a diverse group of journalists from Myanmar, many working in secret, to bring their reporting on life under military rule to a global audience.

Journalists in Myanmar are working in dangerous and difficult circumstances, as the military government attacks the free press and shuts down local media outlets. Many reporters still inside the country fear arrest, with others forced to leave their homes and go into hiding in areas increasingly under attack from military forces. 

All the reporting in this series will be carried out by journalists from Myanmar, with support from the editors on the Rights and freedom project.

These are the stories that journalists from Myanmar want to tell about what is happening to their country at this critical moment.

Just two weeks after the coup, I was one of the first journalists that the military arrested as it attempted to cover up its violent suppression of the pro-democracy movement.

We were taking live-stream footage of the military’s violent suppression of a demonstration in Myitkyina, when soldiers fired rubber bullets to disperse protesters. Police and soldiers arrested me and four other local reporters. Just moments before they confiscated our camera gear and mobile phones, we filmed a soldier giving the order: “Arrest everyone filming.”

Protesters clash with police in Myitkyina.
Protesters clash with police in Myitkyina. Photograph: PR Ram

We were lucky. After being held for the night we were released without charge. Yet since then the military has arrested at least 110 more journalists, of whom 44 remained in detention as of 10 January.

Recently, three journalists were killed. One of them, Soe Naing, died during interrogation by the military after he was arrested on 10 December while filming a protest in Yangon.

Myitkyina locator map

After our arrest, we immediately resumed reporting, but our space to work as journalists was rapidly narrowing. I was constantly followed by investigative police, and after they tracked down our office address, my whole team was put under surveillance.

On 28 February, another of our journalists was arrested. He says he was strip-searched before being released eight hours later. On 7 March, we locked up our offices and went into hiding.

Our challenges were compounded when the military blocked mobile data across the country on 15 March, leaving us dependent on finding places with wifi to carry out our work.

On 29 March a female journalist from my team was arrested while covering a protest. She says that during her six-month detention she spent a week in an interrogation centre where she was subjected to psychological torture. Arrest warrants were also issued for several other members of my staff in April.

That same month, as the military continued to crack down on the press, we realised that we were likely to become more of a target and we finally decided to relocate to the Chinese border. A month after we left, the military revoked our media licence.

Since then we have been staying in the territory of one of more than a dozen EAOs that line Myanmar’s borders. Some of them have been fighting for self-determination for decades; since the coup, some have at times joined forces with new armed pro-democracy groups against the military.

A member of the 74 Media filming a protest in Myitkyina, before staff relocated for security reasons and the outlet’s media licence was revoked.
A member of the 74 Media filming a protest in Myitkyina, before staff relocated for security reasons and the outlet’s media licence was revoked. Photograph: The 74 Media

In our new location, we no longer fear being tailed incessantly by the military or the constant threat of arrest, but we face a new set of worries.

Since our arrival, conflict has been escalating between the military and armed revolutionary groups across the country, and at times attacks near our location seem imminent.

We have heard artillery fire several times, and have bags ready in case we need to flee in an emergency. But there are few places we could seek shelter. We cannot safely go back to the city, but a three-metre-high fence, topped with barbed wire and CCTV cameras, stops us from being able to cross the border into China.

Although we are grateful to the EAO for allowing us to stay in its territory, we also have limited media freedom. Journalists and editors have received verbal warnings that action will be taken against us if we report on issues in a way they do not like.

The 74 Media photographers coving a protest. Reporting on a subsequent demonstration, some reporters had their cameras and phones confiscated.
The 74 Media photographers coving a protest. Reporting on a subsequent demonstration, some reporters had their cameras and phones confiscated. Photograph: The 74 Media

Nonetheless, we continue to report on the serious human rights violations and lawless behaviour of the Myanmar military in Kachin state and neighbouring areas.

A year after the coup, the military continues to egregiously restrict media freedoms across the country and attempts to terrorise journalists into silence. Nearly all the journalists who were working in Myitkyina before the coup have fled. Many are unable to continue reporting at all.

My team has made it this far, and we remain committed to keeping our newsroom alive whatever risks lie ahead.

  • John Padang is the founder and editor-in-chief of the 74 Media, a regional news agency based in Kachin State. He is writing under a pseudonym for security reasons

Translated by Zau Myet Awng; additional editing by Emily Fishbein


John Padang

The GuardianTramp

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