Lu Nge Khit: Swimming Against the Tide

Hsu Htet1 | ယခုဆောင်းပါးကို မြန်မာဘာသာဖြင့် ဖတ်ရှုရန် ဤနေရာတွင် နှိပ်ပါ

Cite as:
Hsu Htet. (2023). Lu Nge Khit: Swimming Against the Tide. Independent Journal of Burmese Scholarship, 2. https://ijbs.online/?page_id=3996

Abstract

The 2021 military coup in Myanmar led to soldiers targeting and persecuting media organizations. Offices were raided, licenses were revoked, and journalists were detained, tortured and killed. Numerous media organizations did not survive these attacks and others were forced to relocate outside of the country. Bucking this trend, one group of dedicated media supporters decided to start a new outlet to fight for press freedom, access to information and human rights in Myanmar. We formed Lu Nge Khit with the mandate to provide content for Myanmar’s youth and prevent them from growing up in a dark age of information like we did in the 1990s and 2000s, when military propaganda, misinformation and disinformation dominated our development as children, teenagers and young adults. Our organization’s journalists and citizen journalists work in a context of immense insecurity and our organization faces many practical challenges, yet it has grown steadily and seen several successes since 2021.

Introduction

Relations between Myanmar’s media and state authorities have always been fraught. This may be connected to the role that the press has played in many of the country’s political movements. The story of British authorities expelling Aung San from Rangoon University for not giving away writer Nyo Mya’s identity as the author of an anti-colonial article published in the university student union’s Oway magazine, of which Aung San was editor, has long been a motivational story for young journalists in Myanmar. The university, worker and farmer strikes that followed this event led to the armed rebellion for independence from British rule.2

Myanmar society enjoyed press freedom in the post-independence period of parliamentary democracy, from 1948 to 1962, after which a military coup led new authorities to render the media an enemy of the state.3 The military’s Burma Socialist Programme Party banned private media, shut down or nationalized publications, introduced censorship, arrested journalists and filled the remaining state media with propaganda. The media sector in Myanmar struggled to serve the people in these repressive conditions for nearly five decades. This media policy not only made people’s daily lives more difficult, but it also caused devastating harm at times of conflict and disaster. For example, people’s lack of access to information and journalists’ lack of freedom to report likely contributed to the deaths of over 100,000 people when Cyclone Nargis ravaged Ayeyarwady Division in 2008.4

While the years following the military’s 2008 Constitution saw improved elections, increased civilian participation in politics and the removal of pre-publication censorship, this did not prevent intimidation, detention and attacks against journalists.5 During the Union Solidarity and Development Party’s government term from 2011-2016, and continuing under the National League for Democracy’s term from 2016-2021, the media and journalists were at constant risk, most often attacked for reporting on corruption, human rights violations, and the actions of the Myanmar military. Some reporters investigating human rights violations by the Myanmar military were even charged with high treason and imprisoned.6 Others received death threats, faced physical violence or were killed by authorities.7

When the military staged its latest coup on 1 February 2021, journalists knew the media would likely suffer from a brutal crackdown and severe repression. Being aware of the vital role the media plays in struggles for democracy, the authoritarian coup leaders predictably quickly oppressed the fourth estate, using the same methods as in the past.8 The army’s new State Administration Council (SAC) targeted journalists and news service providers that reported on the military’s mass violence against peaceful protests, revoking the registration of 13 local and national news media agencies. Huge, township and district-level internet shutdowns took place, often to hide military offensives and abuses. The SAC banned home satellite dishes, installed spyware on internet service providers and aimed to control access to information by targeting the media workers and agencies that criticized the coup and reported on the army’s mass violence, torture and killings of civilians.

At the time of writing, a total of 154 journalists have been arrested since the coup and 57 are still detained.9 At least one reporter has been killed in military interrogation and at least two more killed in military attacks. Pu Dwee Tin, a journalist based in Chin State, was arrested in a conflict area and killed together with other civilians. A Sai K, an editor of the Federal Journal, was hit by an artillery shell and killed while reporting in a conflict zone.

The junta sealed off the homes of media workers and threatened and arrested their family members. Myanmar journalists now face death threats, attacks and arrests mobilized through pro-military groups and accounts on social media. Hundreds of media workers have lost their livelihoods. Although some organizations managed to relocate staff to areas outside of military control to continue their work, others, such as the 7 Day News Journal and The Voice Daily, completely shut down. Myanmar is now ‘the country without newspapers’:10 since 17 March 2021, Myanmar has not had a single independent print newspaper in publication.11 According to the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders, Myanmar’s press freedom decreased dramatically in the year after the coup, and it currently stands at 176th out of 180 countries, followed by countries like North Korea and Iran.12 Robust press freedoms and the right to information, always struggled for in Myanmar, have been pushed to the brink of destruction by the 2021 coup.

Starting Lu Nge Khit: New, but Not So New

We, the founders and editors of Lu Nge Khit, grew up in the late 1980s and 1990s under the previous military regime. Access to independent and verifiable information was difficult, but military propaganda was always available.13 Our growth and development was shaped by military misinformation and disinformation, including intense nationalist propaganda. For instance, we were intimately familiar with the slogans “VOA is lying, BBC is lying, RFA is fueling” at the back of newspapers, although we had no idea what these organizations did. Growing up watching the TV news and the military parades, we thought soldiers were protecting people. This thought was further misshaped by propaganda war movies, with roles played by charming actors and actress, which represented ethnic armed groups as villains and destabilizing rebels. We were constantly told to use low-quality local products—rarely even available for purchase—without being told why the military regime was promoting that policy. The news informed us that no one was dying of hunger in our country, unlike places like Ethiopia, because ours was a Buddhist country, which encouraged many of us to worship Buddhism and try to forget or justify our hardships. Disinformation also influenced the social fabric, with discrimination against Muslims becoming deeply rooted due to military propaganda aimed at scapegoating and engendering hysteria.

We are concerned about today’s youth suffering under a repeat of the dark, distrustful, divisive age we grew up in. Although technological advancements have thrust us into the digital age, internet-based media platforms are now being affected by increasing disinformation and misinformation: the former caused by the military’s systematic attempts at psychological warfare and propaganda, and the latter often honest mistakes due to difficulties verifying stories and/or the lack of robust editorial policies. Although access to accurate and balanced information in Myanmar has become more critical than ever, independent media operations on the ground have only become fewer and weaker.

We participated in the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) following the coup. As the situation quickly deteriorated, we decided to remain steadfast and never give up on the journalism profession. We came together and founded Lu Nge Khit. Reporting impartially on important stories and providing the public with opportunities to participate in dialogue would be our fight against injustice and authoritarianism. Forged in the ashes of the coup, this new organization would be a force for democracy and the rights of the Myanmar people.

We founded Lu Nge Khit with three objectives. The first is to counter the misinformation that has thrived in independent media since the coup. Social media—particularly Facebook—was implicated in facilitating increased intercommunal violence in Rakhine State long before the coup,14 and many new Facebook pages have now proliferated online, in response to the SAC’s suppression of the public. Some merely report news in a satirical style, making fun of authorities and other groups. Others publish hasty, unverified news, prioritizing speed over quality. Many new Facebook pages irresponsibly spread compromised news reports, tarnishing the quality of independent media and eroding the public’s trust—not to mention abusing the public’s right to true information.

Another part of our first objective is to counter military and other disinformation. Systematic propaganda campaigns are being spread through state media such as the Myawaddy television channel, and on social media platforms such as Telegram and Facebook. One of the military’s campaigns is to—both directly and indirectly—denounce, defame and slander those who resist the coup or still support the outcome of the 2020 elections. The junta also spreads disinformation about the international community, claiming some organizations and national governments are supporting ‘terrorism’—its term for anti-coup resistance. This involves disseminating fake news, creating fake social media accounts and influencing online discussions, hacking civilians, and more.

Our second objective is to provide news that is tailored and useful to young people. We aim to act as a platform for facilitating the free expression of Myanmar’s youth. The youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow, but they suffer the most from military persecution due to their passionate participation in anti-coup resistance. Young people have lost their education, jobs and political rights after the coup. They deserve a space to share, to discuss and to work through the difficulties of life under military rule together.

Our third objective is to assist the citizen journalists (CJs) from different parts of Myanmar who risk their lives sharing and publishing the events covered up by the SAC’s media policy and propaganda. CJs, who are mostly younger, face innumerable difficulties in their work and personal lives. At the same time, in Myanmar’s increasingly unsafe reporting environment, media organizations inside and outside the country depend on them more than ever. CJs were crucial to understanding the 2007 political uprising in Myanmar, even before they could use smartphone technology.15 Lu Nge Khit aims to utilize its expertise to mentor, train and guide CJs in their work, as well as provide them with production facilities and other support.

Bearing this in mind, through all our actions we strive to safeguard the freedom of the press and the institutionalization of democracy in Myanmar. As editors we monitor reporting and prioritize the public interest. We not only report on rights violations, but we respect and exercise those rights in our workplace. Lu Nge Khit has zero tolerance of plagiarism, exploitation and discrimination. Most of our journalists are young, like our audience, and key leadership roles are held by women.

Practical Challenges

Starting a new media organization is challenging at any time, let alone in direct response to a military coup. Even if we ignore the military’s suppression of the media, the junta’s absurd economic policies have led to huge devaluation of the national currency and a massive downturn in spending and investment. The business models of major media organizations, already severely tested by the COVID-19 pandemic, are now obsolete. Even large organizations with public donation schemes, subscriptions, advertisements and live broadcast services have struggled. Lu Nge Khit faces both internal and external challenges in its ongoing attempts to establish itself.

Our external challenges relate to the military’s suppression of the media and persecution of journalists. Although Lu Nge Khit operates underground without registration, meaning the military regime does not know who works for us, our journalists still face security challenges due to their record of previous employment. This was not helped by some of the media organizations that agreed to the military’s media policy reportedly providing information on which of their employees quit to join the CDM. Myanmar journalists are targeted for arrest not just for what they do in the present, but for what they did in the past. One notable international example was the regime’s detention of American journalist Danny Fenster (a contributor to this special issue), who was arrested at Yangon airport for being previously associated with media organization Myanmar Now, even though he had long since quit and was working at a different organization at the time of the coup.16 He spent six months in prison.

In some cases, journalists are traced by the information they had to provide to authorities before the coup. For instance, journalists who covered election news and parliamentary sessions from 2011-2021 often had to provide details to civilian authorities in order to do so, including their addresses. After the coup the military and its supporters used this information to target these journalists. One Lu Nge Khit journalist was forced to flee their home as their address and the fact that they previously worked with Al Jazeera was promulgated in the pro-military Telegram channel Han Nyein Oo.17 Several of our journalists have been forced to leave their homes due to security concerns—even though their association with Lu Nge Khit was kept secret. Some must move repeatedly, which is risky and expensive. Some have ‘Profession: Journalist’ printed on their national identity cards and household registration documents, limiting their ability to do simple things like rent a house, use air travel, or even open a bank account without compromising their security and being exposed and persecuted.

The internal challenges we face relate to the technological context of digital news in Myanmar and also our mental wellbeing. Lu Nge Khit is an online, digital media organization, with a presence on internet platforms like Facebook, Telegram and YouTube, among others. However, Facebook is most crucial: over 28 million people in Myanmar used Facebook as their main source of news before the coup, which is approximately 51 percent of the population,18 and 29.1 percent of the population has remained active on Facebook despite internet shutdowns and restrictions after the coup.19 Facebook is the most important platform for distributing our news, and consequently, its restrictions shape most of our operations.

Reaching users on Facebook is constrained by the platform’s algorithms and the amount of money spent on promoting posts, as opposed to the quality, newsworthiness or public interest of a particular story. When we report on political violence such as conflict, torture, arson and killings, posts are often taken down. Facebook’s algorithms also often ‘warn’ the Lu Nge Khit media page for allegedly violating ‘community standards’. This forces us to moderate the contents of our reporting for the platform, raising the question of whether freedom of information and the press is even possible on Facebook. The platform seems geared to reduce the quality and reliability of information in favor of its profits. This problem is not new, and other digital media, both local and national, have raised similar concerns as more and more people began receiving their news through Facebook. In September 2022, 45 media organizations published a joint statement urging Facebook to review its policy to reduce what it calls ‘public affairs content’ in users’ news feeds—in the Myanmar context, this is a euphemism for preventing news in the public interest from reaching users.20 At the time of writing this article, Lu Nge Khit’s Facebook page, which has more than 300,000 followers, is one step away from being closed for good by the platform for violating ‘community standards’ too many times when reporting important news from Myanmar.

Another internal challenge for Lu Nge Khit is maintaining the positive mental health of our team. Dealing with the stress of insecurity, the difficulties of living in a failed economy, and the traumatic and violent events in our own personal lives, all while reporting daily on the horrors perpetrated by the military, is our default state.21 Too often we repress our trauma in order to continue working productively. Our journalists are most at risk of mental health concerns. Whenever a journalist’s source who knows their identity is arrested, even if they do not talk under military interrogation, the journalist must relocate and/or hide until they get some kind of partial assurance their own identity and whereabouts are safe. Of all our staff, journalists spend the most time dealing with graphic violence and worse, either in original reporting or fact-checking. While journalists strive to do all this objectively and with detachment, it is difficult for them not to be affected. When not working, they sleep restlessly. Sometimes when our journalists contact sources by phone for comment, the source is hiding or running from artillery, air strikes or other threats. Detachment is impossible in such circumstances.

Sometimes these internal and external challenges are intertwined. The fact that the Lu Nge Khit team works mostly remotely and online, without an official registered presence in Myanmar, mitigates existential security concerns, but poses challenges to reporting. Journalists must be cautious to identify themselves and must build trust with sources in other ways. As military persecution of society worsens, some people are refusing to talk to journalists out of fear. Our journalists are suspected of being military informants if they ask sensitive questions without building up sufficient trust beforehand. Because we are unregistered, we also cannot directly contact the military and police forces for their right of reply or to verify news—although as noted, in the current context, that would only lead to the military targeting our organization for suppression more precisely, potentially leading to the detention and torture of our staff.

These challenges all affect our ongoing mission to meet our objectives. With that said, our first year of operation from 2021-2022 ran successfully. We covered many important stories and have gained a loyal audience. One incident encapsulates both our successes and our challenges. Figure 1 is a photo taken by one of our journalists during a peaceful protest held by youth on 7 July 2022 in Hlaing Township, Yangon Region.22 A white vehicle can be seen ramming into a protester from behind at speed; it continued on and narrowly missed our journalist. The car looks like a private vehicle, but was in fact driven by soldiers, who now use any means to terrorize the public and intimidate protesters.23 After running over the protester, the soldiers fired two shots from the car and threw a sound grenade. The Lu Nge Khit journalist and the victim injured by the car managed to escape—but five young protesters were not so lucky and were detained.

Figure 1
Military in civilian car rams protester at speed.

Our journalists are proud to still walk among the public and contribute to their communities as best they can. Lu Nge Khit has covered many peaceful protests led by youth and student activists—a selection shown in thumbnails in figure 2. All of our coverage is non-profit and our image and video assets are often used and widely shared by other local and international media outlets.

Figure 2
A selection of photographs from protests Lu Nge Khit covered in 2021 and 2022, which were then used and shared by other media outlets.

Aims and Anticipation

Sustainability remains just a dream when we must struggle daily for our organization to survive. Lu Nge Khit alone lacks the resources to prosper long term in the context of military oppression, where viable revenue models, predictable currency and economic policy, and freedom of the press do not exist. Thanks to generous donors we have reached this far, but we still lack the capacity to extend our coverage and programs. We produced successful programs such as a CJ column, the Weekly Youth Voice program, and a podcast series on mental wellbeing which received praise and endorsements. We produced youth, women, and minorities-focused content, which were widely shared. We will soon produce an ‘Info for Youth’ column, which will provide expert inputs on health and education matters to young people, in addition to the existing news program. Anecdotally, requests for media support from donors doubled in the year after the coup,24 and one donor openly stated that “the sustainability of our existing partners is currently our priority”.25 Donors are hesitant to back a new media agency based in post-coup Myanmar, especially when there are three major exile media outlets that have covered Myanmar since the 1990s and are based in Thailand.

While future sustainability remains a concern, Lu Nge Khit is proud to be fighting for freedom of the press and the right to information. We cannot realistically expect to extend our programs geographically and thematically just yet, but deep down we hope Lu Nge Khit can grow to be firmly established as an independent media agency for youth that is respected by the people and supported by its audience, known for its public service, rather than for its profits, or for accepting military domination. One day, we and all media in Myanmar will be able to report freely without military persecution, censorship, and the restrictions of problematic online platforms.

Endnotes

1 Hsu Htet is a founder of the Lu Nge Khit news agency. Lu Nge Khit means “Era of the Youth” in English.
2 Lintner, 2001.
3 Burma had the freest press in Asia in the 1950s (Ohnmar Nyunt, 2018) but was named ‘top enemy of the press in Asia’ by the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists in 1988.
4 The official death toll and number of people missing stands at over 130,000 people but other estimates have put the count closer to 300,000.
5 Brooten, 2016.
6 Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested in 2017 for exposing just one of the many massacres of Rohingya people by the Myanmar military in northern Rakhine State. They were found guilty of breaching the Official Secrets Act on 3 September 2018 and were in prison for a total of 511 days before being released in an amnesty (PEN America, 2019).
7 For instance, freelance journalist Ko Par Gyi (aka) Aung Kyaw Naing was killed by the Myanmar military while reporting near the Thailand-Myanmar border in 2014 (Regan & Stout, 2014).
8 In general, authoritarian regimes, such as the Myanmar military’s sporadic but dominant juntas, control information to maintain power. This control can be broken down into six techniques: suppression of local media, dissemination of propaganda, ownership of media outlets, censorship of independent outlets, blockage of access to technology and restrictions of access to outsiders (Ghitis, 2002).
9 A total of 97 journalists were released during the most recent amnesty in October 2022.
10 Myanmar Becomes a Nation, 2021.
11 There are a handful of non-military news agencies that have continued running inside Myanmar after coming to agreements with the military junta. BBC Myanmar continues with staff in the country. Myanmar private media such as the Eleven Media Group and the Standard Times are also still permitted to run, as they agreed to follow the junta’s ‘media policy’.
12 Reporters Without Borders, 2022.
13 Lintner, 2021.
14 Whitten-Woodring et al., 2020.
15 During what came to be called the 2007 Saffron Revolution, CJs, internet café users, and bloggers anonymously uploaded images and videos of the military’s persecution of protesters. They emailed information to friends and relatives outside Myanmar and even carried data across the border to Thailand (Chowdhury, 2008).
16 Myanmar Musings, 2022.
17 Han Nyein Oo has over 100,000 pro-military subscribers. Participants promote military propaganda and reveal the information, activities and locations of anti-coup activists and journalists. They also use it to mobilize for physical attacks on them and their property (Soe San Aung, 2023).
18 NapoleonCat, 2023a.
19 NapoleonCat, 2023b.
20 Free Expression Myanmar, 2022.
21 One overview updated in 2019 claims 80 percent of journalists, including foreign correspondents and freelancers, which cover war, disasters, and conflict, experience work-related trauma and are at risk of developing mental health related problems (Smith et al., 2019).
22 Han Thit, 2022.
23 The military has used private and military vehicles to kill and injure peaceful protesters dozens of times since the coup. The Irrawaddy put together a list of such events in 2021—let alone 2022 (A Chronology, 2021).
24 Anonymous donor, personal communication, 15 September, 2022.
25 Anonymous donor, personal communication, 27 July, 2022.

References

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