On August 25, 2017, following a series of deadly attacks on police stations and guard posts in the country’s western Rakhine state by an obscure militant group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), Myanmar security forces launched what they called “clearance operations” in the Rakhine townships of Buthedaung and Maungdaw. The scorched-earth campaign—in which soldiers and local Rakhine groups burned Rohingya villages and terrorized residents, killing men and raping women—drove 700,000 members of the Muslim ethnic minority into neighboring Bangladesh. Over the following months, international human rights groups as well as U.N. agencies gathered information from satellite imagery and interviews with refugees and attack survivors in Bangladesh—information that supported allegations of ethnic cleansing by Myanmar’s army. Myanmar’s response to the criticism was angry denial that the army did anything more than mop up the ARSA militants who had attacked 30 guard posts, as well as demands that its critics produce evidence of the carnage. The satellite photos of burned villages before and after the campaign were rejected, along with copious, consistent refugee testimony from hundreds of Rohingyas in Bangladesh. At the same time, the government tightened already heavy restrictions on media access to the crisis zone. RFA’s Myanmar Service, which like other agencies was denied access to Rakhine state, conducted a three-month investigation into the country’s media restrictions.
More than a year after violence erupted in Myanmar’s Rakhine state forcing 700,000 Rohingyas to flee, the government of Myanmar still is not providing free access to the region for the media or humanitarian organizations. Yet at the same time, the government is denying all charges that the military engaged in atrocities and saying the international community hasn’t produced convincing evidence.
In June 2018, the Myanmar Press Council asked the military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing to allow free media access in the region while they held meeting in Naypidaw.
The general said in reply that the military had imposed no restrictions at all. All media enquiries, as well as press releases and media access questions, were handled by State Councilor’s Office, U Myint Kyaw of the press council told RFA’s Myanmar Service after talking with Min Aung Hlaing.
To learn the truth behind the media restrictions, RFA sent an official request letter to the head of the Ministry of Information (MOI) in Naypyidaw. On August 22, an MOI official replied that media trips to Rakhine were not handled by MOI, but by the Rakhine state government.
After receiving the MOI reply, RFA sent an official request letter to the press office of U Nyi Pu, chief minister of Rakhine State.
On September 11, a clerk in the office of the Rakhine state security and border affairs minister told RFA that the request letter was not approved because it needed an approval letter from the central government.
At a monthly news conference in Sittwe on October 17, RFA was able to ask both the Rakhine chief minister and the minister for security and border affairs to explain who had handled the media requests.
“We don’t have a policy to bar or restrict media access. I would like to stress that we are cooperating and supporting free media access to the region,” said Rakhine Chief Minister Nyi Pu.
“I decided on RFA’s request with the remark ‘give access only with the union government’s approval’ by myself,” Col. Phone Tint, Rakhine State Minister for Border and Security Affairs, told the news conference.
“If you didn’t receive it, maybe there might be some delay somewhere. I will decide it on the same day if you come with (union government) approval. Not only media, but also for NGOs, INGOs, it is the border affairs and security minister himself who is handling these requests,” he told reporters.
“I decide all requests in the same day without delay,” said Phone Tint.
‘The situation is so bad now’
Through further inquiries, RFA learned that foreign media organizations were also repeatedly denied media access requests to the region in past few months—with both union and state governments pointing fingers at each other over the denials.
“We tried to cover the area, and we sent media requests to responsible offices in Rakhine State,” said Pyae Sone Win, a correspondent for several foreign media outlets in Yangon said.
“Their reply was that we must send the request to Naypyidaw, the national capital, and then we sent request to the center, they replied that we had to apply to the state government,” he said.
“Forget Maungdaw, we could not even get access to refugee camps near the Rakhine capital Sittwe. The situation is so bad now,” added Pyae Sone Win.
Domestic reporters and correspondents for foreign media outlets told RFA that media restrictions became tighter after the October 2016 and August 2017 attacks in Rakhine.
“After the 2016 attacks, I saw a statement from the president’s office in April 2017, saying media had to get permission first in order to go and cover in Rakhine State. The restrictions were there even before the second attack in 2017,” said Myint Kyaw of Myanmar Press Council.
A second correspondent for a foreign media, who asked not to be identified, described encountering a similar runaround from Rakhine officials.
“First we were able to go to Sittwe, then we applied for a permit to enter nearby refugee camps near Sittwe after one day’s wait. After 2016, however, access to those camps has no longer been granted. We were not able to go anywhere else either. Later this year, they offered arranged tours but only to places they wanted us to go. Not freely,” he said.
Pyae Sone Win told RFA that under the previous quasi-military government run by Thein Sein, media access, while not easy, still was not as difficult as now. Permission for media access was usually granted after a few days or sometimes months of waiting time, he said.
“Before the 2017 attack, when we went to Rakhine with foreign reporters, we could apply for permission to the state government to go to nearby refugee camps in Sittwe. Camps in Sittwe and other nearby camps, we were able to cover,” said Pyae Sone Win.
“It was still hard to go to Maungdaw at the time as well, but not completely impossible. We had to send requests to one agency after another, but finally we got it after two or three months. During that time, foreign media reporters would have to wait a week or 10 days to get permission to visit Sittwe. But after the attacks, we found it was difficult to go to camps in Sittwe. Now it is hard to visit even Sittwe,” he said.
Reuters reporters set up, jailed
Reporters who did not wait for permission and tried to sneak out to the region faced harassment, threats and confiscation of their cameras, says Myint Kyaw of the Myanmar Press Council.
“Once in 2017, foreign reporters, including fixers who were helping them, were surrounded by an angry mob at their hotel. Some were threatened for taking pictures at the street corner,” he told RFA.
“At least two such incidents occurred in 2017. Domestic journalists were threatened and had their cameras and laptops confiscated and only returned after several months,” added Myint Kyaw.
In a case that added to international dismay with Aung San Suu Kyi and her government, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, two Reuters journalists reporting on a massacre of 10 civilians during the military-led crackdown on the Rohingya, were jailed for seven years in September for possession of official documents.
The trial of the two young men went forward even after a policeman called as a prosecution witness testified that his commander had ordered that documents be planted on the journalists.
Adding insult to injury, Aung San Suu Kyi told reporters in September at a meeting in Vietnam of the World Economic Forum that “they were not jailed because they were journalists."
"Sentence has been passed on them because the court decided they had broken the Official Secrets Act,” she said.
“The Myanmar government has not demonstrated a real commitment to a free, independent, and critical media,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, a U.S. watchdog group, wrote in a commentary on the Reuters trial
“Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian-led government, which holds a majority of the seats in parliament, has the power to reform laws used to silence journalists and end spurious prosecutions, and investigate and prosecute those who are threatening journalists, but its leaders are failing to exercise their authority,” he said.
The one exception to strict access controls that both the central government and the local Rakhine state government make for reporters is the practice of setting up heavily guided media package tours of the region.
‘No trust in arranged tours’
On March 2018, following on recommendations to allow regular media access issued seven months earlier by a panel led by the late former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the government started offering bi-weekly media tours for domestic and foreign journalists. They have held 13 such tours so far this year.
Thiha Thwe, a foreign correspondent based in Yangon, described the tours as hectic but unsatisfying, with tight restrictions on where reporters could visit and how long they could stop.
“During the tour, you have to move from one place to another in a short period of time according to their plan. The tour is about three days and most of the time is spent on the road. There is less time for villages and people,” he said.
“It is not a situation where you can go ask questions freely as you wish,” added Thiha Thwe.
Ye Htut, the former information minister during the 2011-16 Thein Sein administration, says the package tours are not really working.
“For international media to cover our stories, it does not work to do it the way you would bring school kids on an excursion,” he told RFA, adding that the military government had done the same.
“But from the beginning, the international media have no trust in such arranged tours. They suspect that these kind of arrangements are set up. So the benefit of arranged tours is very low. The best way is to let them have free access under a set of concrete rules and regulations,” said Ye Htut.
According to several officials and journalists, the most recent domestic tour set for mid-October in past week was cancelled because only one media group signed up. Others cited the high expense and low newsworthiness of the tours.
At a news conference on Oct. 29, government spokesperson Zaw Htay responded to an RFA question about limited media access with remarks suggesting Myanmar wanted to avoid having embarrassing news reported.
“We don’t believe that granting media access at that time would have prevented the situation.”
“It’s impossible to assume that opening the door for media would have resulted in (Myanmar facing) no accusations and pressure (from the international community),” he said.
Pressed on the media restrictions, Zaw Htay added that “there are limitations on the ground. It’s hard to access not only for media but also for humanitarian organizations due to security concerns.”
‘Canary in a coalmine’
RFA interviewed a number of Myanmar journalists who said the government was making a mistake by denying access to the Rakhine conflict zone.
“Media access to these conflict areas is very important if you want the international community to trust what you are saying,” said Myint Kyaw.
“I always point this out to authorities every occasion I meet them, but the government, the army, the security forces, they do not care. They seem to think restrictions are better.”
Ye Htut, the former minister of information, criticized the government’s approach in social media post on October 22.
“We speak to the international community with our own views, without giving media access to the Maungdaw-Buthedaung crisis region. We release press statements. Then we blame the international community if they don’t accept what we told them,” he wrote.
“In our experience, if there are many media organizations in the area, there will be many views and approaches to coverage, and there would be no place for rumors and doctored news. That would be one good strength for us,” wrote Ye Htut.
“Another one would be because of media presence in the field, those who want to violate laws would be hesitant. Frankly speaking, those in our security forces would be tamed and restrained from committing such crimes,” said Ye Htut.
“In this situation, the government seems to be saying it is the army who is controlling media access, while the military says they don’t restrict media but the government does. It is hard for all because the policy is not clear,” he said.
Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch noted that “journalists were among the first beneficiaries of the political liberalization that started in 2011, and diplomats and UN officials frequently pointed to media freedom as a bellwether of real change and reform.
“But now it’s looking more like reporters may be the proverbial canary in a coalmine, with the erosion of media freedom pointing toward a deeper retrenchment and greater government backsliding on civil liberties, including freedom of expression, association and public assembly.’
Reported by Kyaw Min Htun, Thet Su Aung, Htet Arkar, Kyaw Zawe Win, Kyaw Lwin Oo, Kyaw Htun Naing, Min Thein Aung, Win Ko Ko Latt and Aung Theinkha. Translated and written by Kyaw Min Htun. Edited by Paul Eckert.