Burmese State Media’s Handling of Hong Kong Protests Raises Eyebrows

By Htet Naing Zaw 9 October 2014

RANGOON — For as much as Burma’s reformist government has trumpeted the virtue of democratic governance in recent years, its state mouthpieces have been mum—or decidedly disparaging—on student protestors’ efforts to bring democracy to Hong Kong over the last few weeks.

Critics contend that the editorial bias is reminiscent of state media under Burma’s former military regime, which regularly censored news from all over the world if the story involved democracy.

As much of the world has turned its attention toward Hong Kong, Burma’s state-run dailies have turned a blind eye to the story, or have otherwise presented news with a negative slant toward the student demonstrators’ efforts.

The state-run Kyemon Daily in its Oct. 4 issue featured a compilation of pro-Beijing reporting on the demonstrations in Hong Kong, under the headline “Critics Slam Unlawful Protests in Hong Kong.”

The story began by quoting from China’s own state-run media, Xinhua, which ran a story headlined “Chinese Public Voice Opposition Against HK Occupy Central.”

“People from all walks of life have voiced strong opposition against the illegal gatherings of the Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong over recent days, calling on protesters to evacuate the occupied areas as soon as possible,” read the original English-language report from Xinhua, which was translated into Burmese.

The article went on to mention the protests’ negative impacts, such as traffic snarls, the closing of schools and banks, and the stock market’s decline.

The story also quoted some parts of a pro-China column by Martin Jacques of The Guardian, headlined “China Is Hong Kong’s Future—Not Its Enemy.” It concludes with remarks from Pierre Picard, an expert on China from the University of Paris-VIII, from another Xinhua story, who alleged that some Western countries were interfering in China’s internal affairs.

Information Minister Ye Htut, who has been trying to sell his plan to turn the state-run newspapers into so-called “public service media,” has frequently called on private media to practice ethical journalism. That makes state-run newspapers’ handling of the Hong Kong protests particularly fertile grounds for criticism from political commentators and journalists.

Responding to online commenters who questioned the way state media was portraying the protests, Ye Htut on his Facebook page acknowledged that the news could have been presented more impartially.

“The protests in Hong Kong are just internal affairs of China, but local readers are interested in the incident and the News and Periodicals Enterprise under the Information Ministry thus has the responsibility to cover it for local readers,” Ye Htut wrote, adding that he had issued a directive to state media on Oct. 2 that the news must be presented sensibly, in accordance with journalistic ethics. Part of that code of ethics was that news reporting must not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.

In the protests’ early days, state media completely ignored the story, and appeared to begin covering the events in Hong Kong only after it was criticized by the public.

Political columnist Yan Myo Thein told The Irrawaddy that the Ministry of Information’s handling of the Hong Kong story should lead to a broader skepticism of the intentions of Burma’s government, which has sold itself at home and abroad as a democratic success story.

“In news reporting, different views and opinions must be included. If the [Burmese] government really aims at creating a more independent media, the way those [protests] were featured is wrong,” said Yan Myo Thein.

Thiha Saw, a member of Burma’s Interim Press Council, said: “Though President U Thein Sein is speaking a lot about democratic change, the Information Ministry is still following the old policies of the former military regime.”

“The current government is doing as usual. Since it endorsed a non-aligned foreign policy in 1988, it has barred anti-government protests from being featured in newspapers,” Thiha Saw said.

“Looking at the case [Kyemon’s news story], it is obvious that the media policy of the Information Ministry has not changed at all. Though the ministry is talking about transforming [state-run newspapers] into public service media, it is still sticking to its same old policies. Though there have been changes, they will not be able to write as freely as private media since the reforms have just started to take place. The state-run newspapers are still by the government’s side,” Thiha Saw said.

The protests have also been ignored by a less likely crowd: the National League for Democracy and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. The democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate has not made any public remarks about the situation in Hong Kong, nor has her opposition party released a statement.