Myanmar women journalists in exile: living their lives “as quietly as possible”
Since the start of the coup on February 1, 2021, Myanmar has seen an alarming increase in the repression of critical voices and dissent. The Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) has been restricting freedom of expression and independent voices in the media through drastic means. Licenses of major independent media houses were revoked, media outlets were raided and journalists were arrested brutally in broad daylight. Most independent media in Myanmar have been forced to shut down, while their staff are being searched by security forces across the country.
Free Press Unlimited spoke to the founders of the Myanmar Women Journalists Society to find out more about what their members are currently doing and what their needs are. Due to safety reasons, the names of those interviewed will remain anonymous.
“The Myanmar Women Journalist's Society was established because there was an obvious and distinct need for support to this vital group of people in Myanmar society. Donations from friends were sent to the Society at the start of the coup to distribute protection kits and VPNs, and the extent of support kept growing.” - May tells us, who is a long time member of the Society (the name May is a pseudonym).
“First, we supported the journalists, both men and women, covering the protests during the start of the brutal crackdown. Things got really difficult for them quite quickly. At the time, we sent a lot of reporting equipment into the country. Still now, lots of journalists are based inside the country covering the news, living undercover. Of course, they cannot share their true identity or their profession. And because the Women Journalist’s Society is based abroad, we can offer them unique support – our lives are not at risk like theirs.” When I ask her whether she experiences difficulties in her current living circumstances, May responds saying that “it is nothing compared to what they are going through.”
“For women it is riskier than men, we believe, because with the issue of gender inequality in Myanmar, women also tend to have to take care of the family, and their parents, and with that comes more responsibility, with or without a crisis.”
Living in secrecy
The conversation continues, and we are joined by Anna (also a pseudonym), a Myanmar journalist who recently fled and moved to a neighbouring country. She tells us: “I cannot share my real identity, neither can any Myanmar journalist currently living in Thailand. Why? Because they sometimes deport us and send us back. We are looked down upon as journalists. This makes life difficult.”
“We, who are based in Thailand, are also not safe online. Our family members are still in Myanmar. So even a single trace of our names could risk our family’s detention by the military regime. And even here, a lot of us journalists don’t share our online identity with anybody. We are threatened directly via Facebook messenger, our accounts are even hacked, despite 2-factor authentication. We have therefore created pseudonyms and live our lives as quietly as possible.”
May, who continues to help women journalists via the Myanmar Women Journalist Society goes on to add: “One of the journalists we helped was pregnant when she fled the country during the military coup. The media house she worked for refused to move her over because they were not willing to cover her travel expenses, they said. But luckily we managed to help her. Unfortunately we hear stories like this way too often. And in a lot of those cases due to limited funding avenues, we cannot help.”
Watch a video where Myanmar journalists in exile speak about their experience:
Relocation and emergency cases
Anna proceeds to tell her story from the moment she had to flee Myanmar. “I received emergency support from Free Press Unlimited in February 2022, when I had to flee Myanmar and relocate. With this support, I was able to cover all travel expenses and start my life afresh in Thailand. Free Press Unlimited has really helped me and so many other journalists. The support from Free Press Unlimited is enough to keep us going when we are in crisis mode. I know for a fact that so many Myanmar journalists can continue their important work because of the support that was provided when they desperately needed it.
She continues: “But funding is still needed. And funding is drying up fast, especially following the war in Ukraine. Reporters’ salaries tend to be very low, and since most people still working in Myanmar are working freelance, they don’t have much money at all. In addition, VPNs are also much needed for all journalists still living in the country. Many of them are now using free VPNs which, from a digital security perspective, is extremely dangerous because they are not as secure and can be tracked down easily. But journalists simply do not have the money. International organisations were supporting journalists by buying VPNs at the start of the coup but have stopped doing it since about six months ago.”
“The journalists we are in touch with, love their jobs – they work undercover and risk their lives every day. Emergency support is highly appreciated.” - adds May. “We also know a lot of women journalists who are behind bars since the coup. One woman journalist was arrested with her 7-year old daughter. Together they were in the interrogation center for two nights. They were asking the child “What has your mother been doing and writing about?”
“So there is also a lot of trauma for women journalists. Some of these women journalists don’t need the support because they have a partner who can help them out, others don’t have anyone. Last month there was a bomb blast in front of Insein Prison (the biggest prison in Yangon city) – and the mother of a female journalist we are in touch with, was injured due to this. So life in Myanmar is still very dangerous, even for the family members of these journalists. We are working hard to support them, but unfortunately our funding support is limited right now. It’s a very difficult situation.”
Free Press Unlimited’s work
Free Press Unlimited’s Reporters Respond Fund received hundreds of emergency support requests from Myanmar journalists. Since the coup in 2021, Free Press Unlimited has been able to offer direct emergency assistance to 302 journalists from Myanmar.
In addition to providing direct emergency assistance, Reporters Respond set up an Exile Hub in a neighbouring country, in collaboration with a local organisation. The Exile Hub offers Myanmar media workers temporary safe shelters, access to psycho-social support and training to make sure that they can continue their work. Read more here about the situation in Myanmar.
Free Press Unlimited is campaigning for the safety of journalists worldwide.