The Irrawaddy

Same Old Story: For the Military, the Media is Simply a Tool

Vendors sit at a roadside newspaper and journals shop in Yangon April 1, 2013. Since 1963, Myanmar's government had banned private daily newspapers but with effect from Monday, the distribution of weekly news journals will be allowed on a daily basis. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun (MYANMAR - Tags: MEDIA POLITICS) - GM1E94116EM01

It’s disappointing that the news release about the meeting between Myanmar’s military leaders and the country’s press council in Naypyitaw says nothing new and only repeats what the military chief has said in the past: urging the media to serve the national interest through constructive reporting on peace, stability and unity.

Admittedly, journalists here had faint hopes that the Thursday meeting would mark something of a break from the past. Given Amnesty International’s recent charge that military chief Senior-General Min Aung Hliang and his subordinates are responsible for their troops’ actions (or “crimes against humanity”, as they put it) in Rakhine State and as international pressure is building to try them at the International Criminal Court, it was believed the military might have something to say. Instead, he told Myanmar’s journalists ‘how they should write.’

At the meeting, the senior general said the media, or the Fourth Estate, was an important institution in the country and should become a tool for cementing unity, while any issue deserving criticism should be addressed.

“As news reports only pointing out weaknesses rather than encouraging the public cause demoralization, there should be unbiased news with a constructive attitude promoting public morality,” he said.

But what was missing in his speech was a recognition of the notion of press freedom and the fact that a healthy media has to be independent. If there is no independence, the media will be nothing more than a state-owned propaganda machine. Easing access to information means you care about the media and being mindful of the role an independent media plays in communicating unbiased news. So far, history has shown that no military leader has ever granted the press full freedom.

Rather than telling the news corps how to write, the senior general should encourage his men not to be so allergic to the media if he wants fair and unbiased reporting when it comes to the military. Ask any journalist in Myanmar to name the institution that is the most uncooperative in providing comment, and the answer will always be the same. It’s no wonder why you see ‘no comment from the military was available (despite several attempts)’ when it comes to army-related stories. It has always been this way. And it hasn’t changed yet.

The military paid the price for its shyness recently. It fell prey of a foreign journalist’s report, quoting several anonymous sources, that the military chief had threatened the country’s leaders with a coup as he was displeased with the government’s handling of the Rakhine issue. If the military had an easily accessible spokesperson, it is unlikely such a story would have been published and the senior general wouldn’t personally have had to take the time at Thursday’s meeting to explain the story was not true.

It has to be admitted that the military is getting faster at making press releases ranging from their boss’s overseas visits to emergency relief responses and actions taken against its officers over the Rakhine case. But, sadly, the information flow is still one-sided, meaning journalists can’t reach out for clarifications or any follow-up questions. For curious souls wondering why the military hasn’t appointed any spokespersons, it has. The country’s Ministry of Information updated the spokesperson list for every department in February this year. The military listed two. But when you ring the numbers provided, your calls are rarely answered. We just wish the senior general knew it all.