Foreign media organizations operating in Myanmar have come under heavy fire by authorities eager to suppress their reports on the crisis in Rakhine state, where the country’s military conducted a brutal military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims following deadly attacks on police outposts by the Muslim militant group the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). The campaign has forced nearly 700,000 Rohingya across the border to Bangladesh. Both news agencies and human rights organizations have widely documented atrocities committed by soldiers, including killings, torture, rape, property theft, and arson, much to the detriment of the Myanmar government which has consistently denied the allegations. As a result of what Myanmar's government calls the foreign media’s “one-sided” reporting, the government has banned independent news outlets from visiting northern Rakhine state where the violence occurred.
In addition to the ban, Myanmar authorities have been arresting or filing lawsuits against those who work for foreign media outlets to further clamp down on reports about the crackdown and its aftermath. Two Myanmar journalists with the Reuters news agency are on trial for obtaining state secrets while reporting on the Rohingya crisis and face up to 14 years in prison. The pair were arrested on Dec. 12 just after they had dinner with two police officers who gave them documents about the crackdown. Rights groups and the Myanmar media have accused police of entrapment and blasted the civilian government of de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi for backpedaling on press freedoms.
The Rakhine state government this week said it would sue the American news agency the Associated Press (AP) for publishing a report confirming the existence of at least five previously unreported mass graves containing the remains of Rohingya in a village in Buthidaung township. Both the national and state governments have rejected the report as “false” and claimed that the bodies of 19 “terrorists”—a reference to Muslim militants—had been killed and buried in the area. Rakhine officials have yet to announce under which laws they plan to sue the AP.
On Wednesday, reporter Thinn Thiri of RFA’s Myanmar Service spoke with Aung Hla Tun, Myanmar’s deputy minister for information, about the planned lawsuit against the AP, the case of the two detained Reuters reporters, the state of press freedom in Myanmar, and the possibility of allowing journalists who work for independent news agencies into northern Rakhine state. What follows is an edited version of their conversation.
RFA: Though the Rakhine state government says it will sue the Associated Press (AP) news agency for its report on the finding of the mass graves, others have said the move will damage Myanmar’s image. What do you say?
Aung Hla Tun: That news is not correct. If it were, it could hurt our country, and I think that could happen. Actually, it is an ethical issue that the AP, as a famous news organization, shouldn’t do what it did on such an important issue. The AP issued an incorrect report once before in the past, about two or three years ago, that a mass grave had been found. The AP shouldn’t make the same mistake twice. Because this is a matter of media ethics, the AP needs to apologize to Myanmar and correct the report. Even after it issues a correction, it must tell other media organizations that buy its news reports about the correction. If not, people will keep making comments and policies based on the AP’s incorrect report.
RFA: Some are pointing to the AP case and the case of the two detained Reuters reporters, saying that the media in Myanmar are more oppressed now than they were before when military juntas ruled the country. How do you respond?
Aung Hla Tun: As for the AP issue, it is the AP’s fault, but I am worried whether the Myanmar government has responded in the wrong manner. I don’t think the lawsuit against the AP will come about, so the response must be more appropriate. I don’t want to talk about the Reuters reporters’ case because their trial has begun. I hope it will end with the proper outcome.
RFA: Some say that reporters working for independent news agencies must be allowed to go to Rakhine state to cover news there, so that the world will know the truth about what happened during the crackdown. What’s your take on the matter?
Aung Hla Tun: I have been working actively as a reporter for 20 years, and we all have had a lack of access and of information. That’s the way it is. We have been out of touch with media management for generations—for 50 years. But at the same time, our country’s image has been destroyed because of the powerful international media that don’t report ethically. After that, people lost trust in the media. That’s why we have been working on confidence-building again. We have been working on sending diplomats and reporters to Rakhine state twice a month, but we still have limited assess with transportation because of the [poor] road conditions and [limited] accommodations. The most important reason for the lack of access has been to ensure their security, because ARSA has provided training to many people in the region, and people have learned how to make homemade bombs. If something were to happen during a visit by diplomats and reporters, it would not be good. We have to think about many things [regarding this policy], but we sent a group of diplomats and reporters, including ones from Japan, China, India, and Russia to Rakhine last week.
RFA: What has the Ministry of Information been doing to give the “correct” information about the situation in Rakhine to the international community?
Aung Hla Tun: This cannot occur in one day. We have to send diplomats and reporters to places where they should go, together with authorities and security guards, and let them question people whom they should be questioning. We can’t let them go there alone. Some international reporters went there secretly, met with people, and wrote what they wanted to write, and it damaged our country’s image. We have these types of experiences. I know well about how reporters operate. We want to get firsthand information, though we have some ethics or rules to adhere to. As you know, our country has so many problems and important issues. We can’t endanger the peace process and ethnic unity because of our reporting. We also have complex historical backgrounds. Reporters who want to cover Myanmar news should be peace-[loving] reporters, and they must know the background history. Most foreign reporters who have covered the Rakhine issue don’t know any of the background history. They might read one or two books about Myanmar, and they don’t like it if we tell the truth. What I want to say [to those reporters] is that it’s OK if they don’t want to pour water [to put out the fire], but please don’t add fuel to it. We are working on sending reporters not only to Rakhine, but also to other areas of the country. The government ministries are also working on being proactive about giving information.
RFA: Do you think the Myanmar media will be freer in 2018?
Aung Hla Tun: I hope so. Both the government and the media have to work on this. Reporters have to verify information with government ministries, and officials must speak out as well. If officials refuse to answer questions, reporters can write that they refused to answer. This is part of media ethics. What the AP did went against media ethics because it was one-sided reporting on a very important issue.
Reported by Thinn Thiri of RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.