Commentary

A Shadow of Deceit Hangs Over Info Ministry

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 20 March 2015

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” a US Supreme Court justice once said, in reference to the value of transparency. This week on Facebook, that celestial orb literally was responsible for a spirited online discussion about the deceitful proclivities of one of Burma’s most influential ministries.

A first glance at a picture posted to the Facebook account of Burma’s Ministry of Information might not have prompted a double-take. It appeared to be much like any number of similarly innocuous and, frankly, dull photos of government officials doing their jobs—in this case, a deputy minister walking on an airport tarmac. It was a snapshot for which Burmese government propagandists have always had a particular affinity.

The picture was taken down shortly after its posting on Wednesday, however, after a keen-eyed follower of the ministry noticed something peculiar: The deputy minister was striding in an umbrella-shaped shadow, but the parasol itself was nowhere to be seen.

Exactly why the Ministry of Information felt the need to Photoshop the image to remove the umbrella remains unclear, but the sharp-eyed Facebook whistleblower shared the picture on his account, with a message lecturing on what is a basic journalism taboo: fabrication.

To the ministry’s dismay, the post became probably the most shared picture of the day among Burmese Facebook users, who relished in poking fun at what was an indisputable case of failing to practice what Information Minister Ye Htut loves to preach: ethical journalism.

What’s worse, the ministry appears to be the first entity to breach a law that it had great influence in drafting: the Media Law, passed last year by Parliament.

One provision in the legislation’s fourth chapter, titled Ethics and Codes of Conduct for Media Personnel, states the following: “Journalists shall abstain from alteration of news photos, videos and audio.”

Perhaps realizing that it had stepped into a minefield, the ministry took down the post, but the damage had been done and another scandal gone viral was born: call it Shadowgate.

After the deception was exposed, comments under the post offered insight into potential motivations for the alteration of the photo.

Perhaps the most likely explanation was this: When Su Su Hlaing, the deputy minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, got off the plane at Kaw Thaung airport around noon on Tuesday, one of her dutiful male aids put up a wide-brimmed umbrella to protect his boss from the blazing tropical sun, a traditional Burmese official courtesy.

One Facebook user wrote that a ministry staffer had airbrushed the umbrella from the picture because such a courtesy extended by a man to a woman is considered embarrassing for the former in male-dominated Burmese culture.

And let’s not forget the whole affair’s Aung San Suu Kyi undertones, with many in Burma deeply revering the opposition leader known simply as the Lady.

Whatever the case, the incident shows that in spite of its evangelizing on the importance of ethical journalism in Burma, the Ministry of Information is itself still failing to practice it. Rather than lecturing journalists on how and what they should do, perhaps Ye Htut should spend more time arranging trainings on journalistic ethics for his boys in the ministry.

Instead of blaming others for being “unprofessional” or “unethical,” he might take a lesson from this week’s incident: Being professional begins at home.

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