7 February 2013edge review

Photo: Until recently, Myanmar’s media landscape was dominated by state-run publications, including the English-language New Light of Myanmar (Wilson Loo\flickr)

Anti-Rohingya massacre tests Myanmar’s commitment to media freedom

Du Chi Yar Tan is a small village near Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh, a remote part of the country that has been wracked by ethnic and religious violence over the past two years. In the past few weeks, a series of events there has stirred up a political firestorm that raises serious questions about the depth and sincerity of Myanmar’s democratic transition.

Because the government permits journalists almost no access to the area, piecing together a coherent narrative is difficult. According to the Burmese Rohingya Organisation (UK), which advocates for Rohingya rights, on January 9 a group of eight Rohingya men were allegedly killed while passing through the ethnic Rakhine Buddhist part of Du Chi Yar Tan.

Four days later, a police officer was allegedly kidnapped by a Rohingya mob in retaliation. Although he is presumed to have been killed, his body has not been found.

The policeman’s disappearance prompted a wave of murder and destruction targeting Du Chi Yar Tan’s Rohingya. A statement by the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, cited “credible” evidence that some 48 Rohingya men, women, and children were killed over the course of the week.

Anti-Rohingya violence in northern Rakhine is, of course, nothing new. But what sets this series of incidents apart is the government’s flat-out refusal to acknowledge that they occurred at all – and its to attempt to suppress media reports that they did.

The first media outlet to report on the massacres was the U.S.-based Associated Press, which has operated a full bureau in Yangon since March of last year. A story entitled, “Myanmar mob kills more than a dozen Muslims,” published on January 17 and written by AP correspondent Robin McDowell, earned a stern rebuke from Myanmar’s Ministry of Information, which chastised the agency for publishing information that “differed from the real situation,” warning that the reporters would be held “responsible” for any disturbances resulting from their reporting. An AP team was granted access to generally closed-off parts of northern Rakhine last year, although they were subject to intense surveillance and travel restrictions.

More disturbing, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued an edict proclaiming that any foreign news agency or non-governmental organisation that disseminates information that the ministry has not “verified” beforehand will be considered as engaging in “interfere[ence] in internal affairs.”

The official reaction to coverage of the events in Du Chi Yar Tan, and other developments in recent weeks, indicate that the government may have no intention of allowing true media freedom in Myanmar, despite statements otherwise. In an October 2013 radio address, President Thein Sein praised the state of press freedom in the country, claiming, somewhat accurately, “the media in our country enjoys more freedom than its counterparts in other Southeast Asian countries.”

But he cautioned that the media has a responsibility to report accurately – a statement that could be construed as a veiled threat, given Myanmar’s past repressive regime. “I would like to urge the media profession to enforce media ethics, avoid covering unfounded rumors and stop making personal attacks at a time the country is sowing the seeds of media freedom,” he said.

The Ministry of Information singled out the AP – as well as the ex-dissident news service The Irrawaddy – for publishing “false news… [that] seemed to instigate unrests” in Du Chi Yar Tan in a January 18 piece published in the government’s mouthpiece daily, The New Light of Myanmar.

In a massive snub 10 days later, reporters from a number of prominent local and foreign media outlets – including the AP, The Irrawaddy, Voice of America and The Myanmar Times – were denied access to a media briefing on the Du Chi Yar Tan episode at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Yangon.

Myanmar’s media laws, meanwhile, are in flux. A draft press bill is expected to pass through parliament soon, but its contents have been a point of contention between the government and the country’s journalists, who want to see draconian statutes adapted from existing regulations, dating to 1962, stricken from the final version. It is almost certain that many of the old rules, such as a requirement that all publications be registered with the authorities, will pass through the final reading.

Aside from the new press bill, a number of colonial-era libel laws remain on the books, creating a chilling effect that has been exacerbated recently by threats against media organisations coming from the president’s office and parliament.

Two other incidents in recent weeks point to backsliding on press freedoms granted in August 2012. On December 17, Ma Khine, a reporter from the popular newspaper Eleven Media, was sentenced to three months in prison by a court in the Kayah State capital of Loikaw for allegedly forcing her way into the home of an interview subject and hurling obscenities. Ma Khine is the first journalist jailed since political reforms got underway in 2011.

But Ma Khine’s case may not necessarily indicate a broader trend of persecution against journalists. It may be a function of Myanmar’s poor rule of law more broadly, because her interview subject, a politically connected lawyer, had the clout to press for a self-interested conviction. Corruption is endemic in Myanmar’s courts.

Much more worrying is the arrest last Friday of five journalists from the relatively obscure Unity Weekly. The paper published a report alleging the existence of a chemical weapons facility in Central Myanmar’s Pauk township, allegedly built on orders of Than Shwe before his retirement. The reporters were apparently arrested without warrants, an indication that when it comes to certain matters – particularly, those relating to the military –privilege overrides due process.

Further exposing the deep paradoxes of the press in Myanmar’s rapidly-evolving media climate, Eleven Media – whose reporter was ostensibly jailed under false pretenses in Kayah State – wholeheartedly endorsed the government’s version of the events at Du Chi Yar Tan.

“According to the data we got to date, the reports of government are true,” Wai Phyo, Eleven’s editor-in-chief, was quoted as saying in a statement published January 30 on Eleven’s website.

The wide berth afforded to the government’s version of events at Du Chi Yar Tan by some Burmese media outlets is similar to the widespread public outrage that greeted the publication of a Time magazine cover last June, which carried a photo of the firebrand anti-Muslim monk, U Wirathu, with the cover line, “The Face of Buddhist Terror.” The government quickly pulled the publication from circulation.

It seems that when issues of national pride and affronts to Buddhism come into play, some publications appear wholeheartedly to back the government line, even if they regularly challenge Naypyidaw on other issues. This is no accident. It is in the government’s interest to deflect attention from pressing issues by invoking the unifying rhetoric of nation and religion.

How the government deals with dissenting publications – and how capable it is of bringing the country’s independent media outlets on board with its agenda – is the real story to watch as the shape of Myanmar’s new media landscape starts to emerge.

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