The Irrawaddy

Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘Journalists Have an Important Role to Play’

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy. This week, we’ll discuss the Maungdaw attacks, the resultant military operations, the news released by the government and media coverage. Member of Myanmar Press Council U Myint Kyaw and documentary producer Daw Mon Mon Myat will join me for the discussion. I’m Irrawaddy Burmese editor Ye Ni.

As you know, police border posts in Maungdaw in northern Arakan State came under attack on Oct. 9. The Burma military then carried out security operations in response to the armed violence and both sides have suffered casualties. Initially there were four casualties from the Burmese military but more recently the number has risen to 13, while at least 26 suspected attackers have been killed, including two women according to the latest report [on Monday]. The incident has grabbed headlines in both local and international media. But when it comes to coverage of the developing situation, local and foreign news outlets present the story from their respective points of interest. Local media tend to focus on nationalism while foreign media highlight alleged human rights abuses. Ko Myint Kyaw, are you satisfied with the new government’s news releases and the ability of the media to cover the incident?

Myint Kyaw: The news released by the new government is adequate to a certain extent. When the identity of the attackers was not yet clearly known, the government asked [the people] to wait until Oct. 15 for more information. Then, the authorities investigated the arrested suspects and gave a comprehensive news release on the details and suspected cause of the attacks. What we need, however, is [coverage] by independent media. The government needs to arrange for local private media or foreign media outlets to cover incidents as much as possible. Only a few local journalists—possibly five or six—have been on the ground in recent days. Coincidentally, some journalists from Rangoon were in the area for other reasons when the incident took place. But the more media outlets can report on the ground, the better.

While their coverage may be restricted by their budget or time or other factors, the government should cater to journalists’ requests and take them to locations when safe to do so. I understand that the government may not be able to take them to the front line of the operations. It would be best if the government provided a security plan, if it can, for journalists to go to safe places in the area and collect information. In the Ducheertan case [of racial violence in Arakan State in 2014], no matter how many statements the government released, only coverage by independent media was trusted both locally and internationally. This is an important point and the government should give greater attention to it.

YN: Soon after the attacks took place, there were reports or rumors of the attacks on social media while local and foreign journalists still could not access the area. That reminded me of coverage of Arakan State between 2012 and 2014 when we also saw lots of rumors and unconfirmed news of racial violence shared on social media. The difference is that the response of netizens to these recent incidents is not as chaotic as it was at that time. Netizens have responded with greater restraint this time. Ma Mon Myat, you have completed a lot of research on social media coverage, what is your assessment?

Mon Mon Myat: I agree with your view. The digital literacy of people has developed a lot in the four years between 2012 and 2016. It is because more than half of the population now have access to a mobile phone. Consequently, people have a greater grasp of the internet and Facebook, and have begun to gain information from many different sources. As a result, they can now differentiate between right and wrong information to a certain extent, though not completely.

For example, in 2012, after the photo of [rape victim] Ma Thida Htwe went viral on the internet, even the print media made reports based on unconfirmed sources. At that time, the media had less awareness about how their reporting can lead to conflict. As far as I am concerned, there was no training about responsible and sensitive reporting at that time in Burma, which should have been a contributing factor [to how the situation was reported]. At that time, the print media still had a big influence and there were reports based on rumors and online photos. Media also made reports based on groundless news without knowing the background of the region and reasons behind the conflict. As a result, the coverage exasperated how people viewed the situation to the extent that it became sectarian violence in the mind of the people. Comparing the past and 2016, this time the media exercised caution as soon as the attacks took place to avoid affecting religious and racial sensitivities. [Netizens] wait and verify which news is right and which is wrong, and respond depending on it. So, it is fair to say that the [digital] literacy of the people has developed to a certain extent.

YN: You make an interesting point. When we get into conflict areas, it is important to verify the authenticity of information because both sides may propagate that they are right. I think journalists on the ground play an important role here. So, Ko Myint Kyaw, what are your suggestions for journalists reporting on the conflict on the ground with regards to their professional duties and their security?

MK: Media agencies, if they are to send journalists to conflict areas, should send professional journalists. By professional I mean they have knowledge about verifying information as well as other journalistic skills. Some journalists have only been engaged in the field for a few months or a few years and they don’t understand the sensitivities at play. Professional journalists should understand which information is sensitive and if a particular piece of information should be included or not in their report. They must also understand that anything that one side says is just their claim and statement, and they have to verify it.

If they personally witness a scene, they should only report that scene, not the reason behind it because each side will claim a different reason. Journalists need to understand that what they say is just their claims and journalists have a responsibility to verify their claims. Again, they should be able to report independently amid other pressures such as racial and religious pressures—journalists who know how to resist those pressures and who do not let such pressures influence them. Such journalists should be dispatched.

Unprofessional journalists will find it difficult to produce news stories that can explain the situation to the public well. If journalists are not professional enough, lobbying or advocacy of one side may be included in their reporting. Sometimes if they don’t mention that it is just a statement, the readers might interpret it claims as reality. Some experienced readers understand that it is statement, but most of them don’t. Therefore, journalists have an important role to play. If a journalist fails to verify information and his reporting is unintentionally biased toward a side, it can inflame a situation. They have to take extra caution. While they should be professional, they should also understand the sensitivity of the situation.

On the other hand, if they don’t write anything, people will not be informed about the problems, and the government will not feel pressured to take accountability. The government must always take accountability because in some cases, it might [unintentionally] use force or power excessively. The media also has a role to play to reveal [perpetrators of] the violence. Of course, the government is mainly responsible for this but the media also have to take responsibility. Therefore, we need to dispatch experienced, professional journalists who understand all these things. They should not just be satisfied with taking photos and reporting the incidents, but they need to work to understand the situation.

YN: What are your suggestions for sending female journalists to conflict zone?

MMM: Female journalists may find it easier to interview local civilians, women and children in covering situations. While male journalists tend to focus on military matters, women journalists are more likely to focus on humanity and their reports may represent the voices of women and children. For example, in a recent news report by AFP, it not only quoted the government-provided information, but also quoted the voices of civilians. We need such news stories.

YN: Ko Myint Kyaw, Ma Mon Mon Myat, thank you for your contributions.