A climate of terror has engulfed Myanmar since the army seized power in a coup during February, 2021.
The digital interactive, “This is Myanmar’s State of Fear”, produced by Al Jazeera’s 101 East team is a forensic investigation into the military machine behind the violence and fear sweeping the authoritarian Southeast Asian nation.
The multimedia piece puts disturbing cases of alleged torture, mysterious deaths, disappearances and detention without charge under the spotlight. State of Fear” features rare interviews with army defectors, people who lost loved ones in post-coup violence and politicians from the deposed government now in hiding.
Using rare detainee testimonies, field reporting and satellite technology, the team uncovered a secret facility allegedly used for interrogation and abuse located in a military compound on the outskirts of Myanmar’s largest city Yangon. Al Jazeera worked with investigative agency Forensic Architecture to locate and digitally recreate the centre. They showed how the facility was rebuilt weeks prior to the coup. Before publication,there was scant knowledge of the exact location of the facility and its existence was little more than a rumour. This digital reconstruction informed society of what was going on inside this facility, where hundreds of people allege they have been detained and abused
Some dissidents have been killed in mysterious circumstances after being detained by the authorities. The reporting team gained access to unseen footage of a politician who died in custody which revealed severe injuries to his body which was drenched in blood, undermining the military’s official account that he died of a heart attack in custody. Although rumors about his death were widely shared online, this investigation shed new light on the event with hard evidence.
With the foreign media’s access to Myanmar severely limited, most media organizations have struggled to cover this challenging news story and been forced to rely on foreign academics or diaspora voices as commentators. The unique strength of this reporting prompted the UN agency responsible for examining atrocities in Myanmar, the IIMM, to ask the 101 East team to share their evidence and witness testimonies to help with their investigation. Sky News UK, TRT World and other media outlets have also reported on the key findings of 101 East’s investigation. The combination of compelling first-hand accounts and forensic investigation makes the team’s unique coverage of the Myanmar coup and its aftermath worthy of a Sigma Award.
This digital interactive piece featured audio interviews and eyewitness accounts captured by a reporting team based in Myanmar.
The project also features timelines, data visualizations and other multimedia which have been curated in a scrapbook style to mimic the nature of the investigation. This content and its presentation helps the user to understand the context of what is currently happening in Myanmar and the process of information gathering.
The team chose to publish the names of 6,994 detainees and their occupations – a digital memorial of those arrested during the first six months of the coup. This choice of presentation urges readers to understand the scale of the issue, whilst also dignifying the individuals who have been detained.
Photos and videos sourced directly from families of victims and from across social media were used to create a digital memorial of people allegedly killed by torture. The team handled this graphic content with sensitivity, highlighting the impacts of the coup on individuals without gratuitous violence.
This piece was coded in AMP, a lightweight language to ensure quick load times regardless of hardware, to ensure this project reaches Global South digital audiences with limited internet bandwidth. The interactive ‘This is Myanmar’s State Of Fear’ has been widely shared on Myanmar social media platforms.
What was the hardest part of this project?
The 101 East team gathered the core evidence for this online investigation in an incredibly difficult and repressive reporting environment. In the aftermath of the coup, the junta has sought to prevent media coverage of events in Myanmar. It has closed independent television stations, online news outlets and newspapers, and arrested scores of journalists. The authoritarian regime has already convicted at least six journalists for violating a new provision of the penal code that makes it a crime to publish or circulate comments that they claim spread “false news” or “cause fear”. Producing this digital project was an ambitious, risky endeavour yet vital to informing the world about what is happening under military rule in Myanmar.
This reporting was spearheaded by Ali Fowle, a correspondent who spent nine years in Myanmar and was on the ground in the country’s biggest city, Yangon when the army takeover occured. Using her extensive contacts, Ali interviewed deposed politicians in hiding, former detainees and their families as well as demonstrators who feared imminent arrest. She documented army brutality as the death toll rose, faced the constant risk of arrest and navigated internet shutdowns to produce this unvarnished, yet nuanced coverage from the frontlines.
The 101 East team won the trust of sensitive interviewees who feared jail or death for speaking out against the military. The production team found secure locations to ensure that these interviews could be conducted safely. Ali’s long-term connections with activists and intimate knowledge of the country allowed her to navigate this sensitivity and obtain access other foreign media were unable to manage.
What can others learn from this project?
This quick turnaround digital piece was created in less than two months and capitalized on reporting materials gathered by an investigative unit of television reporters who made two longform documentaries after the coup in Myanmar. Journalists can use “This is Myanmar’s State of Fear” as a blueprint to reimagine television content for a digital audience. It should be noted that Myanmar is one of a number of repressive reporting environment in the world right now. Other news organizations could use this digital interactive as a model to report in authoritarian nations where press freedom is non existent and media access is difficult. “This is Myanmar’s State of Fear” is also a model of important international reporting and clearly puts the current issues into context for an audience unfamiliar with the politics of the country using timelines and clear explainers.
With human rights abuses occurring daily across Myanmar, investigations such as those done by Al Jazeera’s 101 East team are vital examples of public interest journalism, providing a voice to the voiceless and holding the military junta to account. Combining corporate and forensic inquiry with field reporting, this interactive is an agenda-setting piece of digital journalism which serves as a key investigation into human rights abuses following Myanmar’s coup. With the crackdown showing no signs of abating, this piece of online journalism is a powerful examination of how civilians have vowed to keep fighting for democracy, whatever the cost.