Burma, Belarus testify to the power and perils of free media

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Two journalists were arrested recently in airports in Burma (Myanmar) and in Belarus. Daniel Fenster, a U.S. citizen and an editor of news magazine Frontier Myanmar, was seized in Yangon before boarding a flight to Kuala Lumpur. A day earlier, authorities apprehended blogger Raman Pratasevich in Minsk after brazenly forcing down his flight in Belarusian airspace.

These incidents are the latest blows against press freedom in both countries. Myanmar’s General Min Aung Hlaing and Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko have taken a page out of China and Russia’s authoritarian playbook, subverting the will of their countries’ people through fraud and force.

Authoritarians are increasingly targeting the press, and threats to democracies often start with undermining or eliminating independent media. They attempt to quash the free flow of information, as an informed public poses an existential threat to the survival of illiberal leaders.

Myanmar’s military, upon overthrowing the elected civilian government in February, has outlawed or shuttered local independent news media. About 80 journalists covering anti-coup demonstrations have been detained, with many facing state security charges. Not stopping there, authorities have severely restricted the internet and blocked Facebook — a platform for more than half of the country’s 54 million people. Ten years of independent media growth, a force behind Myanmar’s democratic and market reforms, have been erased. The military’s chilling actions coincide with its use of deadly force, leaving over 800 civilians dead — including scores of children.

In Belarus, as thousands took to the streets last August protesting a stolen election that gave Lukashenko a sixth term in office, dozens of local news websites were blocked amid internet shutdowns. These moves precipitated waves of reporters’ arrests and raids on media organizations, including TUT.BY, the most popular online news site.

Among the detained are RFE/RL social media consultant Ihar Losik, the creator of the popular Telegram channel Belamova who has been in pre-trial detention for nearly a year. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry has canceled accreditations of all journalists working for foreign media, including RFE/RL, and Lukashenko on May 24 signed into law a draconian ban on media coverage of unsanctioned protests, among other curbs on press freedom. Merely stepping outside one’s office or apartment as a journalist to cover a protest is now likely to lead to a trip to a Belarusian detention center.

With journalists under pressure, audiences in Myanmar and Belarus are increasingly turning to Radio Free Asia and RFE/RL for information about what is going on in their communities. Our two networks are funded by the U.S. taxpayer and play a critical role in providing unbiased independent journalism to millions across Europe and Asia.

RFA, the first outlet to confirm the military had placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, saw its social media numbers explode after the coup. Viral video of RFA journalist Aye Aye Mon’s tough line of questions at the military junta’s first press conference was viewed 5 million times on Facebook in just one day. In Belarus, RFE/RL’s audience reach has dramatically spiked in the past year, with over 400 million video views of Belarus-related content on social media in August and September alone, all despite government blockages of websites and detentions of RFE/RL journalists. 

Another factor behind this audience growth is rising anxiety as lives are thrown into chaos. Economies threaten to collapse as industries shut down and unrest intensifies. Last month, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet warned that Myanmar is heading toward a “full-blown conflict” like the Syrian civil war. In February, she decried Belarus’s human rights crisis of “unprecedented dimension” upon releasing a report documenting injustice there.

The United States and other partners have turned to targeted sanctions and diplomatic pressure, but both regimes continue to ravage their countries with support from China and Russia. Governments have rightfully focused on humanitarian assistance for those displaced and made vulnerable.

But equally needed is a response to the all-out assault on independent media.

In a moment of societal change, journalists in Myanmar and Belarus ensure transparency and accountability, which are cornerstones of democracy. By bringing important stories to the public, they stand in harm’s way. Frontline journalists need greater international support and advocacy on their behalf. They need relocation assistance when they come under threat and legal support when they are arrested.

Second, local media must be kept alive. As many outlets in Burma and Belarus go into exile, they are struggling to stay afloat. More support is especially needed for research by journalists and others that probes malign outside influence that often fuels corruption. Documenting shady deals creates a public record that can reveal the sources of kleptocratic rulers’ power.

Third, greater funds should be directed to ensuring a secure, safe and open internet. Programs like the U.S.-funded Open Technology Fund are helping millions in those countries access blocked content, including RFA’s and RFE/RL’s reports.

Above all, we should advocate, unceasingly, for the right of journalists to report without fear of arrest and imprisonment. It falls on all of us, at every opportunity and every level, to support free press in those countries like Burma and Belarus where it is most needed. Doing so doesn’t just assist journalists in Myanmar and Belarus — it will help publics desperately trying to regain their ability to control their own destiny.

Bay Fang is president of Radio Free Asia, and Jamie Fly is president and CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Tags Alexander Lukashenko Aung San Suu Kyi Belarus Broadcast journalism Burma Myanmar democracy promotion detained journalist Digital journalism free media independent media Radio Free Asia Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Roman Protasevich threat to democracy

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