Many journalists in Myanmar and elsewhere in the world are facing a hostile environment. With growing surveillance and threats, digital safety has become more important than ever.
When a high-ranking Myanmar government official inquired about her work, Anrike Visser realized that she, too, was on the military junta’s radar. This was back in February 2021, just days after the Myanmar military coup. Visser has since left the country. For her, as for most other independent journalists, it would have been too dangerous to stay.
Visser is a Dutch journalist and founder of Global Ground Media, an online publication that does in-depth coverage of underreported issues in Asia. She is also a trainer and advises media companies on digital safety. “Surveillance rarely starts in the digital space,” she explains. Authoritarian regimes like the one in Myanmar usually know in advance whom they want to target. A critical article or a careless post on social media is enough to get a person on their list, she says. “The time between being under surveillance and being arrested is often short,” she points out. “Being aware of that risk is the first step towards your own safety.”
Surveillance state gears up
Many people in Myanmar initially underestimated this. “In the days after the coup it often felt like a street festival. People were gathering in small groups, holding demonstrations, giving interviews and waving banners,” she says. She was shocked to see that many even had the three-finger salute – a symbol of protest – tattooed on their arms. Meanwhile, in the background, the surveillance state was gearing up.
Employees of local telecommunication providers later anonymously reported that within just a few months after the November 2020 elections, the state had set up a comprehensive surveillance system that monitored all Internet traffic, calls and chat messages. Banks also had to hand over all international payment transactions. “Myanmar’s entire population – 52 million people – are now under surveillance,” Visser says. “That’s the new reality.”
Since the coup, she says, ninety-five journalists have been arrested and many others are in the junta detention centers. The few independent media professionals still in the country rarely sleep at home. Some have managed to go into hiding in major cities or are staying in territories controlled by so-called “ethnic armed organizations”. Although constant threats and surveillance make it extremely difficult for journalists to work, Visser says, “there are things that everyone can do to at least partially protect themselves.”
“Know what to do if the junta comes knocking at your door”
There are no universal safety concepts to cover all aspects, she points out – personal circumstances and local context are still the decisive factors. However, there are basic steps that always work: “Do not have any unencrypted communication, regardless of whether it’s via e-mail, messenger apps or phone calls,” she advises clients. “And do not keep any contacts, pictures or files on your mobile phone.”
Having a second “clean” phone, strong passwords, encrypted hard drives and encrypted cloud storage is also useful, she says, as is having a safety plan for emergencies. “It’s really important to know what to do if the junta comes knocking at your door,” she stresses. She says that at least in Myanmar, there is only a short period of time for lawyers, family members and other supporters to intervene and prevent someone under arrest from being transferred from a police station to a torture center.
Visser advises clients to arrange a code word that they can immediately send to designated contacts. It is also wise, she says, to destroy all data carriers and devices. “Protect yourself as best you can,” she tells clients. “This is not just about you, but also to protect your family, colleagues and sources.” She points out that when someone is under surveillance or has been arrested, a domino effect can develop where that person’s contact has their own contacts who then have to go into hiding, as well.
Although Visser is not currently working in Myanmar, she is conducting online training for journalists, human rights defenders and international NGO staff in Myanmar and elsewhere. She has also worked with DW Akademie in Myanmar on various levels. DW Akademie has long been committed to the safety of journalists and partners working in hostile environments. “In many places around the world this is not a good time to be a journalist,” Visser says. “And although there’s never 100 per cent security for people who do what we do, we have to take action,” she stresses. “Let’s not make it too easy for the surveillance teams.”