The emergence of free media in Burma after six decades of oppression is not going the way anybody expected just weeks ago, and the trend is ominous.
The new publications are openly partisan, nationalist and aiding a deadly war against the already disenfranchised Rohingya minority in the troubled Arakan state alongside the government, nationalist ethnic Rakhines and Buddhist Burmese.
Chiang Mai University in Thailand is organizing a forum for Thursday on Burma’s evolving media landscape, featuring as speakers Aung Zaw, the chief editor of The Irrawaddy, and Mon Mon Myat, co-founder of Yangon Press International. It should be just in time to take on some profoundly disturbing questions about the course the media is taking.
Ironically the newly freed media, especially domestic and Burmese language journals, are saving the domestic image of the infamous military by framing the Arakan conflict as the nation versus foreign invaders – Rohingyas, although they have existed in the area for hundreds of years. That is leading Burma’s citizenry to call upon the military to protect race, religion, and nation, regardless of the military’s 60 years of oppressive rule.
At the outset, it should be mentioned that the media started calling the Rohingyas “Bengali”, “foreign invaders” and “illegal immigrants” as soon as the conflict broke out on June 8. It started framing the conflict as an attack on the nation by “Bengali” foreigners, placing everyone on the same side vis-à-vis the Rohingyas.
Since day one of the conflict, domestic Burmese journals have competed with each other to update the news, often with little basis in fact. The most prominent agencies are The Weekly Eleven, The Voice Weekly, The Yangon Media group, 7Days News, and Popular Myanmar News. The Dhaka-based Narinjara news has been crucial in the anti-Rohingya campaign.
Their reporting is contradictory to international standards. The International Federation of Journalism is opposed to discrimination against any race and religion. It condemns the use of the media as a tool for propaganda, or for promoting intolerance and conflict. The Burmese media rather have done completely the opposite: they have fueled the conflict.
On their Facebook pages, they distribute information that is neither confirmed nor substantiated. For example, The Voice Weekly, a publishing arm of the popular scholarly institution, Myanmar E-gress, posted one sentence-information that there was a “bell ring in front of a Buddhist temple;” its online audience were anxious to know what just happened. It also posted unconfirmed information that Rohingyas had poisoned a water pond. The audience was upset and commented, “Kill them all”. The journal consistently refers to Rohingyas as “Bengali Rioters.”
Almost every 5 to 10 minutes, the media update news indicating how many Rakhine villages have been burnt, how many people have been beaten and killed by Rohingyas who are foreigners, illegal immigrants and invaders.
Every single piece of news reported is exclusively about the victimhood of Buddhist Rakhines. The media never quote Rohingya sources, which say scores of people – men, women and children – are being killed, and that houses and mosques were being burnt down.