YANGON — An Information Ministry official on Thursday said the government was granting special access to conflict zones to reporters who practice “peace journalism” and who don’t “fuel the flames,” sparking a backlash among those left off the list.
On Wednesday, the ministry organized a rare guided media tour of northern Kachin State’s strife-torn Tanai Township, inviting reporters for Chinese and Japanese news outlets and some government-affiliated broadcasters while ignoring some locally based independent outlets, including the Myitkyina News Journal and the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB).
Journalist who weren’t invited took to email and Facebook to ask Deputy Information Minister U Aung Hla Tun — a veteran reporter who worked for Reuters for many years under military rule — why they were ignored. On Thursday, the deputy minister posted his reply on Facebook.
In his post, U Aung Hla Tun said: “It’s very important that we mustn’t send those who will fan and fuel the flames of conflict. We should prioritize those who practice peace journalism. Nothing is more precious than peace for our country at present.”
The deputy minister added that the Chinese and Japanese outlets were also favored for the tour because the two countries were assisting in Myanmar’s peace process and explained that his ministry did not select the outlets for the tour on its own. Though he did not say who else was involved in the decision, media experts believe it coordinates with the ministries of Border Affairs, Defense and Home Affairs — all under the military’s control — in hopes of assuring sympathetic coverage.
China and Japan are also significant investors in Myanmar’s business and urban development sectors but are believed to have invested relatively little in the country’s peace process compared to the European Union and Western countries such as Britain, Norway, Switzerland and the US.
DVB reporter Ko Aung Thu, who is based in the Kachin capital of Myitkyina, told The Irrawaddy that journalists not invited on Wednesday’s tour were not even allowed to attend a press conference with Kachin State Chief Minister U Hket Awng on Friday.
“We only had a few minutes to ask questions when the chief minister came out after a press briefing with selected journalists,” he said.
U Zayar Haling, co-founder of the monthly magazine Mawkun and a member of the Myanmar Press Council, said the deputy minister was effectively accusing journalists who weren’t invited on the tour of being unethical troublemakers. He said the ministry should not discriminate but rather grant all journalists equal access.
“I think they selected those who would not write negatively about the government,” said U Zayar Hlaing.
Press Council member U Myint Kyaw agreed. He said some reporters could indeed “fuel the flames,” as the deputy minister suggested, but added that he should not have leveled such sweeping criticism.
U Myint Kyaw said the ministry should be more open and transparent about the limited powers it has in selecting journalists for such media tours. He said the military admitted to journalists at a workshop in February that it had criteria for deciding who to invite on tours but did not explain what they were.
Many reporters expected conditions for local journalists to improve with former colleagues such as U Aung Hla Tun and Information Minister U Pe Myint now in government. However, both men have been accused of making the situation worse.
“I believe government thinking takes over journalistic thinking once they become bureaucrats,” U Myint Kyaw said.