Guest Column

Western Media Wrong to Say Independent Journalism in Myanmar is ‘Propaganda’

By Igor Blazevic 23 May 2022

The recent article in The Economist titled “Myanmar’s resistance is at risk of believing its own propaganda” is very misleading and dishonest in its claim that the “Burmese media are painting an overly optimistic picture of the war”.

In reality, Myanmar’s independent media is reporting all losses of life and property of the people actively opposing the junta, as well as for civilians. People’s Defense Force (PDF) and ethnic armed organization (EAO) casualties are also reported as they happen, usually within the first 24 hours, and with a high level of accuracy.

We are able to read much more about losses of resistances fighters in Myanmar than we get to read about the Ukrainian army’s losses in the war with Russia. However, I have not noticed The Economist criticizing the Ukrainian media (or any international media which has a significant presence in Ukraine) for not reporting Ukrainian military losses. The Ukrainian media’s constant reporting of Russian casualties and equipment losses through multiple channels, while covering up the number of dead, wounded or captured Ukrainian soldiers, is treated with full understanding by the Western media, The Economist included.

The Economist article claims that independent media in Myanmar are painting a propagandist picture of the war in the country. This is either inaccurate or, for whatever reason, very disingenuous.

I follow a number of independent media outlets in both Burmese and English: The Irrawaddy, DVB, Mizzima, Khit Thit Media, Myanmar Now, among them, on a daily basis and as far as I can judge, none of them are presenting a propaganda portrait of the conflict. Almost every day, we see photos, videos and text showing killed civilians, burned houses, destroyed property. We see photos of killed PDF or EAO fighters and we read reports about their funerals. We read about economic hardship, about displaced people and about humanitarian aid that has not been delivered.

Myanmar’s independent media reports fairly accurately about the hard and tragic situation in the country. One needs to have a pretty strong stomach to follow the independent media, because of the level of trauma one is exposed to when reading or viewing it. There is no propaganda in the reports from the ground.

A screenshot of The Economist article “Myanmar’s resistance is at risk of believing its own propaganda”

True, the independent media does also fairly accurately report about the heroism and determination of the resistance movement, as well as about the Myanmar military’s losses, because that is the reality on the ground as well. And yes, the media do pay tribute to the killed PDF and EAO soldiers as heroes who have sacrificed their, in most cases, young lives to free the country from the military regime’s terror and oppression. And the media does blame the junta and the military for their atrocities and crimes. They do that with emotion, but without distorting any facts. There is nothing ‘propagandist’ about reporting crimes and atrocities or identifying who is to be blamed for them with outrage and anger. To label that as painting an “overly optimistic picture of the war” is inaccurate and unfair.

A journalist sitting in the London office of The Economist, or in an air-conditioned room in Singapore or Bangkok, has for sure not come anywhere close to the places where the junta is undertaking “cleansing operations”, or close to the prisons where the regime has detained over 13,000 citizens for peacefully opposing the military takeover. And that same journalist is taking the high moral ground by criticizing local independent media for not being professional enough, saying that they are not able “to find out facts on the ground”. But they are.

Most of the reporting teams are operating on territory that is under the control of the junta and they continue their work with extraordinary bravery, although they know that if they are arrested, they are likely to be tortured that same night. Some of the editorial teams are in territory controlled by EAOs and a small number of them are abroad. Even those who are abroad are continuing their work under significant risk and insecurity, because they often do not have proper documents for the countries they are in and have not been offered refugee status or any other sort of protection.

It has been 15 months since the coup and the independent media is high on the regime’s list of targets. Despite that, only two dozen Myanmar journalists have received asylum and protection from democratic countries. This is hypocritical behavior by countries that praise their own commitment to democracy and human rights. The overwhelming majority of Myanmar independent journalists continue to report in an extremely precarious situation, without protection, with little or no salary and under enormous risk. And they report, every day, every single relevant fact that happens in the country, always double-checking from at least two, often three, different sources.

Yes, citizen reporters have become an important part of the journalism ecosystem in many places where, due to harsh dictatorship and the brutality of war, standard modes of reporting become almost impossible and most prestigious international media like The Economist don’t have anybody on the ground. In this situation, independent journalists are doing extremely important work double-checking, filtering, putting together and “professionalizing” the stream of raw footage, amateur photos and fragments of information. They deserve recognition and praise for this important work, not unfounded criticism and blame from an air-conditioned office somewhere in London, Bangkok or Singapore.

The journalist who wrote the article in The Economist has unfortunately not quoted any independent Myanmar reporters. I doubt that he or she has talked to any of them. The only Myanmar journalist mentioned and quoted is a well-known stringer and photographer for Western media who is doing a good and brave job, but who cannot represent or talk on behalf of all Myanmar independent media.

At the end of the article, the journalist describes the Myanmar independent media as “those outlets”, a simplification which puts them on the same level with the junta-controlled state media that systematically spread disinformation, blatant lies, and simple and dumb propaganda.

One is used to better and more responsible reporting from The Economist than this.

Igor Blazevic is senior adviser with the Prague Civil Society Centre. Between 2011 and 2016 he worked in Myanmar as the head lecturer at the Educational Initiatives Program.

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