On this week’s edition of Dateline Irrawaddy, the panel discusses the Burma Army’s announcement it would pursue legal action against media outlets which publish statements by Kokang insurgents, which the military has been battling in a renewed conflict since February.
Kyaw Zwa Moe: On World Press Freedom Day on May 3, the Burma Army issued a statement which bans the publication on statements released by the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Kokang rebel group which has attended the ethnic summit in Panghsang, Wa State. It warns there will be legal action to outlets that disobey. This will be our topic for discussion, in which I am joined by Ko Myint Kyaw, a member of the Interim Myanmar Press Council and Ko Nyan Linn, the chief editor of Archives Magazine. I am Kyaw Zwa Moe, editor of The Irrawaddy English edition.
Ko Myint Kyaw and Ko Nyan Linn, as we know, the Military’s Accurate Information Unit released a statement that declares the Kokang rebels of the MNDAA an unlawful association, and news media are not permitted to broadcast or publish their statements from the conference at Panghsang. Such a statement was quite rare in the past. Why did the military issue such a statement, Ko Myint Kyaw?
Myint Kyaw: The difference between the present and the past is that social media is playing quite an important role in current conflict with the Kokang. We’ve frequently seen propaganda and psychological warfare on social media. Sometimes, it is spread by one side and sometimes by both sides. This has a certain impact on mainstream media. The military probably can’t tolerate news which exerts such an impact on their operations. I understand their feelings but I think their procedure and the way they responded is unacceptable.
KZM: When we write a story, we write it based on information we gather from various sides. If one side is blocked, will it impact the quality of the news, and what can we do about biased reporting?
MK: If one side does not release information, we may publish only the news and information from the other side. That information may not be 100 percent true. Once a war breaks out, it is usually followed by propaganda. Some may be half lies and half truth while some may be more lies than truth. The question is how to handle this. We journalists make reporting decisions depending on public interest tests. But the government, or in the case of the Kokang fighting, the military, sometimes tries to forbid and prohibit media from reporting, for reasons relating to their institutional interests or national security. We are on a path towards democratization and such actions severely tarnish our democratic reforms. I don’t think the international community will consider it to be a good sign either.
KZM: Ko Nyan Linn, I would like to your opinion as an editor. An editor will publish any report that has news value, should it be ethnic issues or economic issues or armed group issues. So did you still have the wish to publish the news after you had read that statement? Were you worried?
Nyan Linn: I would like to talk about my feelings when I read the statement. I see the statement as a direct threat to our freedom to gather and publish news. Journalists are like someone walking on a tightrope. We can’t lean to either side. If we lean toward one side, then we will fall and we are no longer professional journalists. We have to report impartially and with caution. Now that the military said action will be taken against us if we publish the statement of the Kokang group, I feel like we are being pushed to lean to one side. The news media should not have such a term as ‘unlawful association’, and no restrictions on associating with and interviewing those who belong to such groups and publishing their statements. Rather than issuing a statement that sounds threatening, it would be better if they requested the media to report in an unbiased manner on the conflict.
KZM: Here we have come to the topic of legality. The army’s statement uses the phrases ‘existing laws’ and ‘communications with unlawful association.’ There may be different forms of communications. If someone communicates with what an insurgent group to support or to share information, it is no doubt cooperation with that group. But then, if someone communicates with them either by phone or in person to gather news, is that against the law? For example, the US has eliminated Osama Bin Laden. Before that, journalists communicated with terrorist organizations to interview them. Those interviews were published worldwide, in which case, it’s very different from the situation here. What is your assessment, Ko Myint Kyaw?
MK: If they warn us by comparing the gathering of news by journalists with an ordinary citizen associating with an unlawful association, it is limiting the flow of news. People will no longer know anything about that group. These groups may be spreading propaganda but we still need to inform people about what they are doing, daily life in their area, and the political, economic and security situation there. For example, what is the security situation like in Kokang areas? What do they say? People who will go to that region and do business or work there need to know these things. The flow of news is important for ordinary people and we are here to make sure the news gets out. We are neither informants nor spies, and we do not want to disadvantage the government army. We are just trying to make sure people are given the right to know. Previously, reporters went to Laiza and made interviews with ethnic leaders in person. Legal action should not be taken against doing this. In the case of ban on publishing Kokang’s statements, it is specifically targeted at the Kokang and it is not a total ban. But my overall assessment is that it is not reasonable to bring a charge of unlawful association against journalists. They should not do so.
KZM: Looking at the past, our country was ruled by military government, in different forms and in successive periods, from 1962. And press freedom was banned throughout these successive periods. It was very rare that military leaders gave direct interviews to media. Even in the first three or four years of U Thein Sein’s administration , the army barely made official statements. Now, the military’s Accurate Information Unit releases information to media. This can be called something like progress, more or less. Ko Nyan Linn, what is the difference between reporting about conflict and other issues? How much more sensitive is it really?
NL: We journalists have to take considerable precautions if we are to write about the army. There have been two cases previously involving Unity and then the Global Post. Given those cases, journalists seem to be hesitant both consciously and unconsciously to write about the army. Journalists are concerned that they would be subjected to legal action if they criticized the military. We have to take extra caution in reporting about the clashes. To make balanced reporting of the clashes—
KZM: It is an ethic that every journalist has to observe, I think.
NL: But in some circumstances, it is difficult to verify if a report is true or more serious than it sounds. It is important that journalists do not seriously believe everything that one side says in covering any issue. We should not believe 100 percent in what the army says and nor should we 100 percent believe what the Kokang group says. We need to verify again and again, information should have various voices to make sure it is balanced reporting. This is part and parcel of being a journalist and I would like to ask the military to consider this point.
KZM: At this point, I think cooperation is required to get accurate information. The government and the military and the business community should operate with a spirit of cooperation. I think the military is less cooperative than the others. What do you think, Ko Myint Kyaw?
MK: Yes, we have difficulty in gathering information about the military. Journalists always talk about how difficult it is to get information from the military when they find out I am a member of Press Council. They ask me if there is any progress. I tell them that we are still trying and the process is not yet completed. We want the military to be able to directly answer or reply when we ask questions by phone. We have not yet reached that stage. We still don’t have contact persons. The military needs to have contact people to communicate with the media and directly answer the media’s questions.
They should be able to respond at any time in case any group—should it be the Kokang or the Kachin Independence Army—spreads propaganda. If they do so, people will not believe the propaganda of the other side. They will have to respond as necessary. For example, a clash breaks out today and an ethnic armed group says ten soldiers from the army are killed. If the army does not respond, readers will think it is true. So, the army loses prestige from failing to communicate with the media.
KZM: Thank you both for your participation today.