Analysis : National Leaders Send a Chilling Message over Media’s Role

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 29 November 2018

YANGON—Myanmar’s senior leaders offered a revealing glimpse of their perceptions of the media last week—and their view of the country’s Fourth Estate appears to be one of deep skepticism that some media professionals fear could have a chilling effect.

Last Friday, newly elected members of the Myanmar Press Council gathered at the Presidential Residence in Naypyitaw to take their oath in front of President U Win Myint, who delivered a speech.

Following the ceremony, at a dinner in honor of the council, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi chatted briefly with several MPC members on the topics of social media, mainstream media and access to information.

Council member U Zayar Hlaing recalled Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s response when he raised the issue of the differences between social and mainstream media.

“She asked whether the mainstream media ever makes errors,” the MPC member said, adding that the State Counselor raised a British newspaper’s mistaken identification of a picture of a Cambodian boy as a Rohingya child. (She said the mistake occurred in The Guardian; in fact it was in the Daily Mail.)

When the conversation turned to fake news, U Zayar Hlaing—who is also editor of Mawkun Magazine—suggested promoting public media literacy and access to information as possible ways to counter the problem. The State Counselor was skeptical that increased access to information would deter journalists from covering stories in a biased way, though she did not specify whether she was referring to local or international media.

“I didn’t know how to keep the conversation going. It made me wonder if she has any trust in the media,” U Zayar Hlaing told The Irrawaddy.

The Press Council’s Joint Secretary-1, U Myint Kyaw, was also present at the meeting. He, too, got the impression that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi sounded skeptical about the media.

Press Council members take their oaths in front of President U Win Myint in Naypyitaw on Nov. 23. / President’s Office

“The way we see it, access to information is a means to get rid of misinformation. But she was doubtful that it would work,” the journalism teacher said.

Both council members believed the State Counselor’s suspicions might stem from the international media’s coverage of the Rohingya issue in Rakhine State.

Since the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army launched a series of attacks on security outposts in northern Rakhine in 2017, the international media have published a flood of stories, mainly focusing on the Rohingya’s plight, particularly the mass exodus to Bangladesh and accusations against security forces of rape, arbitrary killings and the torching of Rohingya property.

On the other hand, much of the coverage—sometimes accompanied by fabricated or misleading pictures or information, or presented in a misleading manner—has been perceived by Myanmar people of different walks of life as not being balanced and fair, with accusations that the coverage has failed to give the views of both sides and has neglected the experiences of ethnic Rakhine and others in favor of Rohingya accounts. The government, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, believes the coverage has tarnished the country’s international image and has issued official warnings in the Daily Mail case. She herself has been misquoted by The Associated Press.

The two Press Council members expressed concern that her perceptions of the media could have serious repercussions in Myanmar, given Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s stature and popularity. They worried her views would have a further negative impact on public opinion of the media.

“So I wonder if she was delivering a message that she no longer trusts the media. If that was her intent, I have to say it’s a chilling message,” U Zayar Hlaing said.

The impact of these views is already palpable. News about the meeting and her comments on the media went viral online, and prompted some explosive comments. For those predisposed to be unkind to the media, it presented a golden opportunity. Comments like “Why should we believe in [the media] when our leader doesn’t have any trust in them?” were quite common. Others wrote: “You journalists only criticize the government but daren’t do it to the military.” (Actually, we do. Here is just one example.)

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi wasn’t the only one whose remarks left journalists feeling uneasy on the day; President U Win Myint’s speech to Press Council members contrasted with comments he made during his inauguration ceremony eight months ago, when he urged his government to treat the media as “the eyes and ears of the people”.

Last month, Yangon Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein filed a lawsuit against three journalists from Eleven Media and had them arrested for incitement for allegedly publishing false information relating to the use of public funds. President U Win Myint took the right approach by ordering the chief minister to first attempt to settle the case with the help of the MPC, as required under the country’s Media Law. His intervention saw the journalists released and paved the way for the Press Council’s mediation.

At the swearing-in ceremony on Friday, however, rather than encouraging the media to be ethically vigilant in its coverage of the executive, legislative and judicial sectors, promoting an independent media and vowing to ensure access to information, the president exhorted media professionals to provide “criticism in a positive way” while taking care not to affect the country’s peace, stability and security.

Given that journalism’s first obligation is to the truth, U Zayar Hlaing said, the media’s job is to investigate, not to cover up.

“If there’s a murder case, we have to report it. It’s the media’s job to empower society by providing accurate information,” he said.

Two local reporters for Reuters are currently serving seven-year prison sentences for breaching a law on state secrets, despite the testimony of a police witness that the pair was arrested as punishment for their reporting of a mass killing of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine.

U Sein Win, journalism adviser at Internews-Myanmar, said the term “criticism in a positive way” was itself controversial.

“If you say no to media criticism on nation building, it could lead to self-censorship, and that’s dangerous,” he said.

U Myint Kyaw said the leaders’ perceptions of the media would prompt restrictions on the country’s press freedom.

“If it happens, it will have a negative impact on the democratic transition,” he said, warning that if the press can’t do its job properly, corruption and irregularities in government will go unchecked and the whole country will suffer.

Rather than alienating the media, the government should embrace their views on how to counter fake news, U Zayar Hliang suggested.

“A discussion on how to set up a mechanism to counter fake news with correct information would be more workable,” he said.