The strict stay-at-home order issued by Myanmar last week for its largest city, Yangon, barred residents from traveling from any of its 44 townships to another. There are some exceptions, such as for police officers, emergency workers and doctors.
But one group not given special status to cross township boundaries is the news media. That includes reporters, photojournalists and the drivers of newspaper delivery trucks. The exclusion prompted protests Monday from journalists and news vendors alike.
“How can we stay at home while we need to cover the news as video journalists?” said U Wai Yan, a correspondent with Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency. “If the people do not get the true news, then there might be lots of rumors, and these are toxic for people.”
With cases of the coronavirus soaring, the government has issued stay-at-home orders for Yangon, a city of seven million people. It issued similar restrictions in Rakhine State, where the first major outbreak occurred, and most recently for three townships in Mandalay, a city of one million.
Myanmar, which was ruled for decades by the military, is one of the poorest nations in Southeast Asia, and doctors say that its underfunded medical system would be quickly overwhelmed if the virus is not contained.
The number of reported cases has skyrocketed over the past month to nearly 11,000, with 226 deaths. But the rate of testing in Myanmar is among the lowest in the world and the number of cases is likely much higher.
On Sunday, the government issued a requirement that anyone seeking an exception to the travel restrictions must register online. But it included no category for members of the news media.
“I would say the government does not understand the importance of independent private media,” said U Myint Kyaw, secretary of the Myanmar Press Council.
The council, which seeks to protect the media’s interests, has appealed to the government to provide an exemption so that reporters can cover the news and newspapers can be delivered.
Critics said the restrictions on movement would make it more difficult for news organizations to cover Myanmar’s national election, which is scheduled for Nov. 8.
The main opposition party argues that holding the election in the middle of a pandemic favors the ruling party of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s civilian leader, and has called for it to be postponed. Election officials have rejected a delay.
Sonny Swe, the founder and chief executive of the influential magazine Frontier Myanmar, said journalists must have sufficient freedom of movement so they can cover the election, the health crisis and other significant events.
“I can understand the restrictions and necessary measures for the sake of public health,” he said. “But the media should be considered an essential business.”