Journalists Lament Lack of Access Despite Military Pledge

By Yen Saning 27 January 2015

RANGOON — More than three months since the Burma Army vowed to make itself more available to members of the media, journalists are expressing frustration that the promise remains unfulfilled to date.

Following a mid-October meeting between Burma Army commander in chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing and members of the Interim Press Council, three generals were named to serve as press liaisons. Contact information for the three men was never provided, however, and at a second meeting in November, the Press Council was told that the Defense Ministry’s Department of Public Relations and Psychological Warfare would instead be tasked with handling media relations.

An email address to which journalists could direct inquiries would be set up, the military said, though no address has yet been made public.

In the absence of a Burma Army spokesperson, the Press Council has been collecting contact information from private media outlets with the aim of creating a mailing list to which the Burma Army can send official statements.

“We haven’t got any contacts [from the military] yet,” said Thiha Saw, a Press Council spokesman. “According to a decision made at the last meeting, they will give us information on their terms. It’s one-sided; we can’t question them back. When we asked for an email contact, they said they are not ready yet.

“We would like an official department that would release official statements—a place that we could reach out to when something happens so that they can respond,” Thiha Saw added.

The last year has seen modest but nonetheless unprecedented military engagement with Burma’s fledgling press corps, including a first-ever press conference held by Min Aung Hlaing and official responses to two tragedies in which the Burma Army was implicated.

The Burma Army used the Press Council to disseminate three statements related to two incidents: the October death of the journalist Par Gyi while in military custody, and the deadly shelling of a Kachin Independence Army (KIA) post on Nov. 19.

But critics have pointed out that the Par Gyi communique came 19 days after he was killed. In the Kachin incident, the Burma Army provided a response one day later.

The military has thus far been silent in the wake of the killing of two Kachin schoolteachers last week, amid allegations of Burma Army involvement.

“It’s not that we cannot contact them at all,” Thiha Saw said. “There are some who will talk informally. … It’s irritating for us but there’s nothing we can do.”

Burmese writer and editor Ma Thida (San Chaung) said the military’s approach to media relations lacked transparency and reflected a propagandistic mindset.

“Without making contact directly, but instead through a particular group … that access to information is not equal. … We are in a situation where we can only report the news they provide,” said Ma Thida, cofounder of PEN Myanmar, the local chapter of an international writers advocacy group.

In the case of the slain journalist Par Gyi, the private interests of the Press Council’s general secretary Kyaw Min Swe benefited from the military’s preferred means of communicating to the media: The editor-in-chief of The Voice, a popular daily, broke the news of Par Gyi’s death in his Burmese-language publication the day after members of the Press Council received the information from an unnamed Burma Army source.

Ma Thida said the military should make multiple levels of its personnel available for press inquiries, rather than directing all inquiries to only a few designated liaisons.

“For example, what is happening now in Kachin [State]: The voices from officers on the ground are not reachable,” she said.

“What they are doing right now doesn’t seem like they are trying to get in touch with media, but instead are propagandizing through the Press Council.”

Shwe Hmone, a senior reporter from the Union Journal, said most of her outlet’s military-related reporting was suffering from the dearth of official access.

“Until we can get direct contact with the military, our reporting will never be OK,” she said. “In our opinion, there should be a military department that can answer our questions, a phone that will be on 24-hour standby. Only then can we report both sides of a story in a timely way.”