Hard News: The Struggle to Report on Myanmar and Belarus From Exile

What happens when a country’s journalists are forced to flee?

Hard News: The Struggle to Report on Myanmar and Belarus From Exile
Protesters hold images of detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a demonstration in Bangkok, Thailand, on Feb. 1, 2023, to mark the second anniversary of a coup in Myanmar that has seen more than 2,800 killed and thousands arrested in its wake, as the country’s ruling junta wages a bloody crackdown on dissent. (Jack Taylor/AFP via Getty Images)

Before the February 2021 coup in Myanmar, Nu Nu Lusan had never worked as a journalist. But when Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, overthrew the fledgling civilian-led government, thrusting her home country into yet another violent period of military rule, she found that reporting on the crisis was how she could contribute to the resistance effort.

“I feel like I’m doing something for my country,” she told New Lines from Malaysia, where she has lived for about 10 years. “My motivation is the people fighting inside.” Many of her country’s exiled reporters feel similarly.

Lusan did not have to flee Myanmar because of her work, as other journalists had to, but she’s now in the same boat as the rest of them. Returning is out of the question for the time being, due to safety concerns. “There’s no way back,” she said.

The military’s post-coup crackdown forced nearly the entire country’s independent media ecosystem to either stop working or flee the country to continue operating in exile. Some continued working on the ground in secret, at great risk to their personal safety. Many stopped reporting entirely, while many others left the country to report from afar.

“I just want to contribute to my country,” Lusan said. “I’m outside, so I can speak out.”

Over 4,000 miles away, about six months before the coup in Myanmar, something similar had happened in Belarus. In August 2020, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko — in power since 1994 — claimed another victory in a contested election that sparked nationwide protests and subsequent government crackdowns. Opposition leaders were detained or forced to leave the country. Next came the war on the press, pushing independent media into exile.

The situations in Belarus and Myanmar are very different, but what they have in common are attacks on human rights and democracy. Central to these are assaults against freedom of the press.

Instead of fizzling out, Belarusian and Burmese media have regrouped in exile, where reporters continue to cover what’s happening in their respective countries. Despite the many new challenges that come with reporting on a country from outside it — ranging from finding sources, to maintaining funding, to confronting regime disinformation and grappling with internet blackouts and bans — the media have become a part of the opposition in their own right, as they work to keep readers informed in Myanmar, Belarus and around the world.

In both countries, outlets have been banned, media licenses revoked and reporters sentenced to lengthy prison terms. The numbers paint a grim picture of what has happened to the journalists who didn’t leave — or were unable to.

The post-coup crackdown on media means Myanmar now ranks among the world’s worst countries in terms of the killings of journalists, according to the 2022 Global Impunity Index of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). At least three have been killed, while many more have been tortured. The CPJ ranked Myanmar as the second-worst jailer of media workers globally: Since the coup, no fewer than 159 have been arrested, at least 59 of whom are still in custody, according to data from the Myanmar Journalists Network.

“The conditions are getting worse and worse,” said Kyaw Hsan Hlaing, an independent reporter who left Myanmar after the coup and is now based in Hawaii. “They are really struggling to survive.”

Like Myanmar, Belarus is among the world’s worst jailers of journalists, with 33 reporters currently behind bars, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), which the government officially dissolved in 2021. More broadly, over 1,400 political prisoners are currently detained in Belarus, according to rights group Viasna. The BAJ estimates that around 400 reporters have left Belarus since 2020.

“It’s safe to say that by now all independent media have been eliminated inside Belarus, although there are still individual journalists — very brave people — who report from various regions of the country,” said Gulnoza Said, who works on Belarus for the CPJ.

The main upside to reporting from the outside is safety, said Lusan and many others from Myanmar and Belarus. “I don’t have to worry someone will knock on my door,” Lusan said. “I don’t have to worry someone will drag me to prison.”

But challenges still abound when journalists cover a country from exile.

Chief among the problems that exiled Burmese and Belarusian media face are finding people on the ground to speak with, multiple reporters and media rights activists told New Lines. Given the political situations in both countries, even if a reporter finds a source they want to talk to, it can be difficult to gain their trust.

“We cannot feel the spirit of society,” said Volha Khvoin, who is on the Belarusian Association of Journalists board. “Reporting as a genre has practically disappeared from the media. I mean reporting when you go to some event and describe what you see, what people say, what it smells like, how the sun shines and whether a dog ran past.”

Unlike Belarus, many of Myanmar’s news outlets have had previous experience in exile, including the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), which has been based in Oslo since 1992. The DVB, like other outlets, briefly operated inside Myanmar during the democratic transition period but has returned to exile since the coup.

This time around, “going back to exile is much more difficult,” said Aye Chan Naing, DVB’s founder and executive director, because the “military junta is much more brutal than before and the risk is much higher for people to work inside the country.”

But technology has helped, Naing added. In 1992, DVB relied on landline phones and fax machines to get in touch with people on the ground, he said. Now, Burmese and Belarusian reporters can use secure messaging apps such as Signal and Telegram to talk to sources.

Frontier Myanmar, an English-language magazine that was previously based in Yangon but is now based in Thailand, still has sources inside the country it can work with to get information, according to its editor-in-chief, Ben Dunant. The distance just makes connecting with sources harder. Frontier stopped operating from October 2021 to January 2022 to make it easier for the magazine’s staff to leave the country if they wanted.

Still, the Belarusian government and Myanmar military have taken concerted steps to discourage people on the ground from talking with journalists, or anyone else outside the country.

Since the Belarusian government has labeled most independent news sites as extremist, sources can face prosecution for speaking with them, according to BAJ’s Khvoin, who is now based in Warsaw. That means “Belarusians inside Belarus are increasingly left without a voice,” she said.

In Myanmar, the weaponized use of widespread internet blackouts has had a similar effect. Since August 2021, 31 townships in seven states and regions have reportedly experienced internet shutdowns, and an additional 23 townships have experienced significantly slower internet speeds, according to a 2022 statement from four U.N. experts about the Tatmadaw’s efforts to establish a “digital dictatorship.”

“Internet restrictions are being used by the junta as a cloak to hide its ongoing atrocities,” the U.N. experts said. “The barriers to internet access impede efforts by journalists, human rights monitors and humanitarian organizations to collect evidence of human rights violations committed by the military or serve at-risk populations.”

These internet restrictions have made it harder to connect with sources and verify reports of things like airstrikes and arson, according to Dunant, Lusan and other reporters. Reporting from exile also takes longer.

For reporters outside the country, “you rely on other people to tell you what they witnessed, and there is always a risk of information loss or biased views,” said Juliette Verlin, a French freelance reporter who is still living in Yangon. Staying in the country has taken a toll on Verlin’s mental health, she said. “You care a lot, so you’re suffering, too.”

There is a deep fear among exiled Burmese and Belarusian media that their families will face retaliation for their work, multiple reporters said.

From all of these challenges, a certain sort of camaraderie has emerged among the reporters who fled their home country in order to continue reporting on it. “The solidarity was great. And colleagues are very grateful for this. Belarusian journalists didn’t feel abandoned,” Khvoin said.

Operating in exile has also presented new financial concerns, analysts said. For Belarusian media, it is now very difficult to generate income from advertising, according to the CPJ’s Said, meaning outlets are increasingly forced to rely on grants and donations.

“No one in healthy mind would advertise their business in so-called extremist media,” said Kirill Voloshin, cofounder of Tut.by, which was one of the largest news outlets in Belarus before the government detained staff members and blocked the site in 2021. Voloshin is now based in Lithuania, where he is working with other exiled colleagues to establish Tut.by’s successor outlet, Zerkalo.

Despite the financial difficulties, Voloshin is motivated by the belief that “reporting the truth, somehow, at some point, will make democracy return quicker” to Belarus.

Myanmar’s media have also been left with narrow sources of funding, according to Oliver Spencer, an adviser at Free Expression Myanmar (FEM). That means outlets may be forced to shrink or close entirely in future.

The war on the press in Belarus and Myanmar is cloaked in disinformation, with both the Belarusian government and Myanmar military turning to propaganda designed to discredit independent media. Belarusian state media present independent media as extremist, and reporters who have fled are depicted as traitors, according to Karol Łuczka, who works on Belarus at the International Press Institute. Similarly, the military-controlled media in Myanmar try to discredit the independent media and portray them as working against the country, Lusan and Verlin said.

Neither Myanmar’s military nor the Belarusian Embassy in Washington, D.C., replied to requests for comment.

One of the biggest obstacles lies in maintaining readers, because consuming independent media has effectively been criminalized in Myanmar and Belarus. Exiled reporters are working hard to document what’s happening in the two countries, but people still on the ground may not even be able to read the reports, due to barriers imposed by the state and military that have made it impossible to safely consume independent media.

State media are widely available, but people have to go out of their way to access independent media and, even then, it’s risky. Most, if not all, independent news sites are banned in both Myanmar and Belarus. Readers can often circumvent bans by using virtual private networks (VPNs) and other tools, but these pose additional risks. In both countries, police officers and soldiers regularly search citizens’ phones, and people can be punished or jailed if they are found to have used a VPN or accessed banned sites, analysts told New Lines.

As a result, many Belarusians are afraid to read content from media outlets that have been banned, according to Said of the CPJ.

The lack of access to independent media, coupled with plentiful state propaganda, has the potential to influence people’s understanding of their country and the world, analysts warn. One study suggested that Belarusian people who did not have access to independent media were more likely to sympathize with Russia and its invasion of Ukraine. “People inside Belarus are very confused about what is happening. This is the major trend that we can confirm: confusion is growing,” said Natalia Belikova, who works at the Press Club Belarus in Warsaw.

Confusion is often the point of disinformation. To succeed, Belikova said, propaganda doesn’t always need to convince people of one side or another. Instead, it just has to plant doubt and sow mistrust. “Who will be the final winner in this race for people’s minds — time will show,” Belikova added.

Military disinformation appears to be less effective in Myanmar, according to Spencer, partly because there is huge hunger across Myanmar for independent media and information and strong unity against the military. DVB’s Naing said DVB’s readership and TV viewers have more than doubled since the coup.

Yet limited access to independent media still has important implications for people on the ground. The Tatmadaw has turned to internet shutdowns as a weapon of war, according to Freedom House research analyst Kian Vesteinsson, with internet shutdowns often occurring before, during or after military actions such as airstrikes and scorched-earth campaigns. That cuts people off from critical information during times of crisis and prevents reporting on atrocities, Vesteinsson said.

“Independent media outlets offer a critical source of information that may depart from what the military wants people to think, whether it’s about military actions or all sorts of crises that people across Myanmar have experienced, all the way down to some physical realities of day-to-day life,” Vesteinsson told New Lines. “When these restrictions target independent media websites, they’re limiting people’s access to all sorts of information.”

The point of these barriers is control — that’s what Lusan in Kuala Lumpur says the military wants back.

“When people don’t have access to information, when people don’t have any access to what is really happening, they can easily control the people, and the people won’t retaliate,” Lusan said.

In Myanmar and Belarus, the media — whether they want to or not — are part of the resistance, journalists and analysts told New Lines. They have effectively joined the opposition, not necessarily by their own doing, but because the authorities have forced them into that box. The importance of objectivity and journalistic ethics has never waned for either camp of exiled reporters, they said, but the spirit of a free press and dissent is now in direct conflict with how both regimes operate.

“It’s just a general phenomenon around the world that when independent media becomes exiled, then it identifies more with an opposition movement,” said Frontier’s editor-in-chief Dunant, adding that he thinks Myanmar’s independent media generally seems invested in the resistance movement.

To Dunant, contributing to the resistance doesn’t mean reporting loses its independence and objectivity. “We believe everyone in a position of influence should be held to account,” he said.

“Independent media, by virtue of being independent media, is part of resistance to military rule, because military rule is an existential threat to free and independent media,” Dunant continued. “Keeping independent media alive and reporting critically is one way of resisting.”

Belikova of Press Club Belarus thinks that free Belarusian media are playing a similar role in the fight against the Lukashenko dictatorship. She also sees similarities between what’s happening in Belarus and Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine.

“For Ukrainians, they’re fighting for their identity. And for us, it’s the same type of war, except we are not fighting with weapons. We’re fighting with information,” she said. “It’s all about the survival of the nation and Belarusian identity.”

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