Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘There is a Media Crisis in the Country’

By The Irrawaddy 30 September 2017

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss reporting of the Rakhine issues by local and foreign media. U Sein Win of Myanmar Journalism Institute and writer and journalist Daw Mon Mon Myat will join me to discuss this. I’m Ye Ni, editor of The Irrawaddy’s Burmese Edition.

Dateline Irrawaddy : ရခိုင္ပဋိပကၡအေရး သတင္းဘယ္လိုေရးၾကမလဲဒီတပတ္ဒိတ္လိုင္းအစီအစဥ္ကေတာ့ ရခိုင္ပဋိပကၡအေရး သတင္းဘယ္လိုေရးၾကမလဲဆိုတဲ့ ေခါင္းစဥ္ေအာက္မွာ ဧရာဝတီ ျမန္မာပိုင္းအယ္ဒီတာ ရဲနည္၊သတင္းစာဆရာမ ေဒၚမြန္မြန္ျမတ္နဲ႔ ျမန္မာသတင္းပညာသိပၺံမွ ဦးစိန္ဝင္းတို႔ကေဆြးေႏြးထားၾကတာပါ။

Posted by The Irrawaddy – Burmese Edition on Friday, September 29, 2017

There have been allegations of ethnic cleansing concerning issues in Rakhine. What’s worse, it is even labeled as textbook example [of ethnic cleansing]. So, we should also ask this question—if the Rakhine issue has become textbook example of journalism. The foreign media only covered the voices of Rohingyas, and neglected other ethnicities like Mro as well as Hindus—mass graves of Hindus have been found—we’ve also made reports earlier that 100 Hindus were missing. We don’t see reports about this in foreign media.

What would you like to say about the reports that fail to analyze the background situation, U Sein Win, as you are also a teacher at the journalism institute? In journalism, there is conflict sensitive reporting, which is about making reports concerning conflicts. According to media ethics, if you are to make a report about a conflict, you are supposed to avoid fanning the flames of that conflict. Ko Sein Win, what do you think of such reporting?

Sein Win: I’d like to say two things: the first is about the foreign media. In the early days of the conflict, they were quite partial and biased. Some were heavily biased, and some, not that much. But what is sure is all of them were partial. They were partial because their news angle was excessively focused on humanitarian grounds. And regarding international coverage about Myanmar, reporting is usually done by junior journalists. In reality, they don’t have expertise and don’t know about Myanmar, and the government was not able to give access to information.

With a combination of all these factors plus international media being played by campaigners and hardliners, the image of our country was marred badly. And about the local media, they are not able to get access, or their access is limited in covering the situation in Bangladesh. You can’t get a journalist visa to get into Bangladesh for reporting. Bangladesh denies access as it is a sensitive issue there. So, there is polarization on both sides. And we have only a few media outlets that have wide international readership and that can make in-depth reports in English with a sole focus on journalism. All these factors combined have led to a media crisis in the country. There is also a crisis among ordinary people in the society. But here I just want to focus on media. So there arose a media crisis regarding the issue.

YN: Ma Mon Mon Myat, you’ve been countering potentially misleading reports on the Rakhine issue. You’ve pointed out that a news story by Reuters didn’t match its photo. How did you feel about the narrative of the international media?

Mon Mon Myat: I saw three groups on social media. The first one is media agencies which are trying to portray Rakhine issue as ethnic cleansing. Besides the terrorist group, there are also INGOS and rights groups which try to portray it as ethnic cleansing. Such a portrayal is oriented toward a particular end. They are trying to portray Myanmar as committing ethnic cleansing. Most of the hard news by international media for the time being is oriented towards that end. This makes me wonder if they have certain reasons and intentions to work to that end. Again, the incident coincides with UN General Assembly. These are the factors.

I have monitored what my friends working in international media wrote on their Facebook and Twitter. And I found that they are imperceptibly biased. For example, they don’t describe terrorists as who they are, but as freedom fighters fighting for the rights of their people. They don’t check if their descriptions are correct or not. I can point out some reports as an example. The AFP described ARSA as freedom fighters at the end of its first report about the issue. The international media also causes problems. Because of their portrayal, the international community has perceived them as a group of heroes fighting for the rights of a minority group. And that group also propagates about the Rohingya through social media and Twitter as well as rights groups and international media connected with them in order to win attention from international media.

So, I thought about what I could do to fix this. The only thing I can do is to monitor them individually and point their mistakes out. I have to monitor each of those who are reporting for international media and whose reporting is influential for international readers. For example, Andrew Marshall [of Reuters] is a very well known journalist in Southeast Asia. He didn’t go out on the ground in person, but made phone calls and wrote a report. The headline of his report is ‘We’ll kill you all’ and in the photo a man was brandishing knife and other people were surrounding him. So I thought something was wrong, and I took a close look and found that it was the photo about distributing food at a camp. And the story is based on a phone interview with a man in a village in Myanmar. So, it is quite misleading. I told him directly on his Facebook that it fanned the flames of conflict. The following day, he asked his editors to change the photo. If they make mistakes, we have to point it out. You can’t assume that journalists of international media will always be correct. They may also make mistakes and breach journalistic code of ethics.

YN: You’ve made an interesting point, Ma Mon. And drawing conclusions from what you two have said, there is a wrong narrative because there is no access to information on the ground, and journalists learn the situation secondhand and report from afar. There are suggestions that journalists should be allowed to go to ground to solve this. The government might have its reason not to allow it: it might be concerned that some wrongdoings might be disclosed, as well as about the security of journalists and also concerned that other problems might arise. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has also said that there is an iceberg of misinformation. So what do you think of the government’s handling of media to make sure reports about the Rakhine issue are close to reality?

SW: Concern about security forces is reasonable. Not only in our country, but also in any other country in the world, security forces have their own classified information. So, they are concerned about it. They are concerned about bad guys. In journalism there are not only ethical journalists, but there are also black sheep. If I were the government, I would select and invite journalists to make reports in case of a crisis. We know who understands the situation in Myanmar. There really are only a few journalists who understand Myanmar and its political complexity. Myanmar is a big country to us, but normally the world only comes to know it when problems arise here. Normally, when I talk about Myanmar [to foreigners] I have to explain that it is beside Thailand and India. I mean, Myanmar is not a center of focus. And foreign leaders coming to Myanmar for diplomacy are not the highest-level leaders, but are at a secondary level. We know the journalists who understand the complexity of Myanmar. Select and invite such journalists. Let them go anywhere and ask any person, and provide them with security if necessary. The government can select and invite those who have a good attitude and understand the complexity of Myanmar.

And about the long-term media strategy, the government must turn out information officers. I mean trained information officers, not public relations officers. Many of the existing officers are transferred from the military, and they don’t understand [the nature of media]. So it is useless to blame them. They don’t know how to do at all. So, we have a lot to do. What the government should do for the time being is to revive the badly tarnished image of the country. Then, it must go start long-term plans.

YN: Ma Mon Mon Myat, as you’re a writer as well as a journalist, what is your advice for journalists concerning the crisis?

MMM: The ethical crisis is that some [local journalists] with nationalist attitudes think that those who have fled [to Bangladesh] are not the same race as them and therefore they don’t need to cover their situation. And international journalists asked us if we don’t have sympathy for hundreds of thousands of displaced persons. What you can do is to ask yourselves if you would protect the national sovereignty as a Myanmar citizen or display humanity.

There is however no excuse for any terrorist act. But then before making any accusations, we should draw comparisons with terrorist act in international countries, for example intimidating large numbers of people to flee, slaughtering and abduction of women for sex slavery are no doubt the acts of terrorism. You have to compare the acts of terrorists and those of security forces who are supposed to provide security for civilians. This is the message you have to give to the international community to determine if their acts are really terrorist acts. Anyway, we must have humanity. We just can’t ignore and report about them, thinking they don’t belong to the same race as us, and therefore need not protect them. We must be balanced in our reporting. We must also convey the voices of the other side as much as possible. Rather than protecting the minorities in Myanmar, local media should also interview those who have fled to the other side like India Times has done. This is about journalistic ethics.

YN: Thank you both!