The deaths of at least 114 people on Saturday has put the crisis in Myanmar back on the front pages of media around the world. But the country’s government is trying hard to prevent such coverage.
The country’s military seized power on Feb. 1 in a coup that ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi from an already tenuous power-sharing arrangement. The army says there were irregularities in last November’s general election and that it has moved to take full control instead.
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The takeover was bloody, attracting media attention and political condemnation. But as the killing has gone on with daily regularity — the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a non-profit human rights organization, says it has verified the killing of 459 civilians — it had slipped from the top of the global agenda.
It took a deadly killing spree on Saturday for Myanmar to regain media momentum. “U.N. officials condemn Myanmar junta after 100-plus civilians killed in one day,” said CNN. “Images From a ‘Day of Shame’ in Myanmar, With Scores Shot Dead,” said The New York Times.
Beyond the numerical spike, the brutality on Saturday was especially jarring on three counts.
First it was foretold by the army itself. “You should learn from the tragedy of earlier ugly deaths that you can be in danger of getting shot to the head and back,” the army announced via its MRTV news channel on Friday.
And while the army did not specify that it had adopted a shoot-to-kill policy, many of the protestors may have been the victim of snipers. AAPP says that more than 25% of those killed have been shot in the head.
Saturday’s slaughter occurred on the country’s Armed Forces Day, an annual military parade and banquet attended by officials from supportive governments including China, Russia, India and Thailand.
The contrast between the bloodshed and the Myanmar army’s self-congratulation was highlighted by leaked images of coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing partying with others in a white dress uniform.
Another repellent reason for the revived media interest was the death of a 5-year-old child, shot dead at an anti-coup protest in Mandalay. This was sadly reminiscent of the Kurdish 3-year-old whose body washed up on a Greek beach while trying to escape from war-torn Syria in 2015, and whose image made front pages everywhere.
For exactly these reasons, Myanmar’s coup perpetrators have tried hard to make sure that most of its killing is not visible to media, local or foreign.
Several journalists in the country have been arrested. Many others have gone into hiding.
The offices of Myanmar Now were sacked on March 7, though they were reported to be empty as the editorial team head fled on the eve of the coup.
The regime has ordered the closure of most conventional and online media outlets. It canceled the licenses of those including Mizzima, DVB, Khit Thit Media, Myanmar Now and 7Day News.
The military has ownership positions in five media groups, and its Myawaddy Television (MWD) has become more prominent since the coup.
International social media platforms have reacted by closing access to the regime’s international outreach channels. Facebook banned Myawaddy on Feb. 2. At the beginning of March, YouTube removed five government channels for breaking its community guidelines. Facebook and Instagram have halted other propaganda accounts.
The government has also periodically closed off much of the country’s mobile internet infrastructure. Within the country, the blockage of dominant social media platform Facebook makes it harder for anti-coup protestors to organize.
The internet disruption also makes it harder for media based overseas to verify the reports and images that it is receiving from in-country sources.
“We worry for the safety of our reporters and our staff, but in the current uprising, the whole country has become the citizens’ journalists and there is no way for military authorities to shut the information flow,” DVB’s executive director Aye Chan Naing recently told The Associated Press.
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