Local Media Furious After Being Barred From Repatriation Signing Ceremony

By San Yamin Aung 24 November 2017

YANGON — Local reporters expressed their anger about the government’s limitations on access to information after they were banned from covering the signing of a bilateral agreement on the repatriation of refugees from Bangladesh on Thursday.

Amid mounting international pressure and concern over the Rakhine crisis, Myanmar reached an agreement with Bangladesh in Naypyitaw on Thursday for the return of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who had fled to Bangladesh.

Minister for the State Counselor’s Office U Kyaw Tint Swe and Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister AH Mahmood Ali signed an “Arrangement on the Return of Displaced Persons from Rakhine State,” according to an announcement from the State Counselor’s Office released later in the day.

Only Bangladeshi reporters who accompanied the Bangladesh delegation and official Myanmar state media were allowed to cover the signing event.

Local reporters complained that they were bounced between the State Counselor Office, Ministry of Information and Ministry of Foreign Affairs while trying to get access to the event. They said officials diverted them from one ministry to another until the reporters finally learned they were banned from the event.

Ko Nyan Hlaing Lynn, Naypyitaw Bureau chief of Frontier Myanmar, said that the officials at first said they planned to have a joint press conference but later decided not to hold one. The local reporters were then left stranded outside the Office of State Counselor’s Ministry, where the signing ceremony was held.

As local reporters were denied access to the event, most Myanmar media, including The Irrawaddy Burmese Edition, had to translate the news from Bangladesh media organizations and wire agencies. Frontier Myanmar published translations of reports from the Dhaka Tribune and AFP, Ko Nyan Hlaing Lynn said.

The State Counselor’s Office issued a statement about the event but it included few details apart from old information that the arrangement was based on a 1992 agreement between the two countries and that it contained general guiding principles and policy arrangements to systematically verify and receive the displaced persons from Rakhine State.

Local reporters said they learned the repatriation would start within the next two months, and that a joint working group would be formed only after Bangladeshi papers reported the news.

Ko Nyan Hlaing Lynn noted the reporters also lost the opportunity to question Bangladeshi officials on their country’s stand on the issue.

“I can’t understand why they didn’t allow us. They are under both local and international pressure over the repatriation issue. But the government lost a chance to explain about that (what and how they are going to carry out the repatriation),” he said.

Ko Aung Htet, from The Voice Daily, said that because his organization was denied access to the event, it chose not report the signing of the agreement.

He said the limitations on news coverage have increased under the current government, citing several recent events at which local media were denied access and some events, where only selected media representatives were allowed to attend.

“Even if the room is too small to allow all the press, they should have a pool system. Letting some media while blocking others is not a good idea.”

U Myint Kyaw from the Myanmar Press Council said there was nothing that his organization could do in regard to the matter. But, the reporters could ask for greater access, he said.

Reporters based in Naypyitaw said that they considered boycotting a government press conference about the signing event.

“It is old news now. Bangladesh media have already covered it. I decided I won’t go even if they hold a press conference this late,” Ko Aung Htet from The Voice Daily said.

The Frontier Myanmar’s Ko Nyan Hlaing Lynn said he would also join the protest.

“I want to send a message to the government that their arrangements have a problem,” he said.