With the state once again targeting journalists, press freedom in post-dictatorship Myanmar remains elusive. But it’s not just the government that inhibits free expression: the country’s leading independent news daily routinely betrays the ideals of press freedom by promoting hatred against a persecuted minority.
Two years ago, Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government officially lifted pre-censorship rules governing domestic non-state media. This was a good sign: after half a century of military dictatorship, a new era of press freedom appeared to have begun, with independent news outlets finally empowered to fulfill a role journalists in the West had always taken for granted. Criticizing the government and afflicting the comfortable would now become widespread practice.
Based on recent events—and my own subsequent experience inside the country better known as Burma—that prediction has proven optimistic, at best.
Last fall I travelled to Myanmar to begin work on my first novel. Since part of the story involves the flow of information inside the country, I decided to spend a few months as a sub-editor at one of the country’s non-state, independent newspapers. The Eleven Media Group (EMG) is a privately owned and operated company founded in 2000 as a sports periodical named for a soccer reference: eleven players a side. By 2012, EMG had a staff of 250 and a combined circulation of 450,000, with five weekly publications and one news daily in the Burmese language. The English version—comprised of a website and an e-paper, Myanmar Eleven—runs on a joint venture with Thailand’s Nation Multimedia Group.
Eleven has its virtues. In 2011, it won the Reporters Without Borders “Media of the Year” award for its principled opposition to the military regime. That same year, dogged reporting by Eleven staffers was credited for the new regime’s decision to suspend the Myitsone Dam project, a massive and widely criticized development with China on the Irrawaddy River. While at Eleven, I edited translated stories about land grabbing, which strips citizens of their property to make way for non-existent military projects; the impact of electricity fee hikes on the average wallet; the social consequences of border skirmishes between the national army and ethnic armed groups; and widespread corruption in the legal system. Among other things, Eleven has also taken the lead in calling for constitutional amendments to end the military’s involvement in politics and allow the country’s most prominent dissident political figure, Aung San Suu Kyi, to run for president.
Throughout all this Eleven has been a champion of press freedom and media rights, frequently slamming President Thein Sein for the government’s harassment or suppression of journalists. Eleven was among the first domestic news outlets to report the jailing of four reporters and the CEO of Unity Journal because of their exposé about a secret chemical weapons factory. It has also led calls for justice in the case of a Democratic Voice of Burma reporter who was given a one-year jail sentence and, naturally, in the case of a three-month jail sentence given one of its own reporters. (Eleven’s Ma Khine was convicted last fall on a trumped-up “trespass” charge after she crossed a high-powered lawyer.)
But Eleven has a shocking double standard for press freedom that badly undermines its credibility. Back in January, following eyewitness reports of a massacre of up to 40 Rohingya villagers, the Ministry of Information held a press briefing aimed at rejecting calls for an internationally monitored investigation of the incident. Eleven was invited to the press briefing. The Irrawaddy, Associated Press, Voice of America, Myanmar Times, Mizzima, and other media deemed excessively foreign influenced, were not. Despite its frequent calls to protect media rights (and notwithstanding the support it received from PEN International and various international media organizations after Ma Khine’s imprisonment), EMG issued no statement and published no editorial condemning the Ministry’s exclusion of these media. Why not? Quite simply, Eleven’s coverage of the conflict in Rakhine State pleased the government while the other media’s coverage did not. It would not have been in Eleven’s best interests to have drawn attention to this fact.
In essence, there are two Elevens: a sane Eleven which, when covering non-religious stories, follows a code of ethics and encourages reporters to probe more deeply, and an insane Eleven that jettisons such principles the moment Buddhism is seen to be under attack. That Eleven toes the government line and brooks no dissent within the newsroom. Like most other domestic news outlets in Myanmar, EMG’s civic vision is informed by a deeply embedded sense of ethnic Bamar (Burman) nationalism. Its editorial stance confirms that the Buddhist religion of the dominant culture defines the national character to such an extent that it requires constant defending. Fear and paranoia—once used by the junta to control people’s daily movements—play into this agenda, creating public consensus by reinforcing old prejudices and scapegoating minorities considered a threat to the Union. Eleven stokes that fear with every story it publishes about the Rohingya.
EMG bases its opposition to the Rohingya’s presence in Myanmar on former dictator Ne Win’s revised citizenship law. This 1982 statute rewrote Burmese history to erase the existence of 1.5 million Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine. Today, in lock step with the Thein Sein administration and most other domestic news agencies, Eleven policy disallows the use of ‘Rohingya’: reporters must instead refer to this persecuted minority as ‘Bengalis’ to denote Indian or Bangladeshi origins. Eleven is unconcerned that international genocide experts have described the substitution of ‘Bengali’ for ‘Rohingya’ as a form of hate speech that denies the Rohingya’s historic presence in Burma and exposes them to hatred.
Eleven’s articles about the Rohingya tend to be infantile in their repetitive use of ‘Bengali,’ as if readers need to be hammered over the head with the term. The articles typically observe the following formula: interview no Rohingya Muslims but speak only with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists (especially village elders, who either hate “Bengalis” or don’t know any personally) and state police sources; blame all conflict on “the Bengalis” (for a time, the boilerplate phrase was “illegal Bengali Muslims”); repeat the lie that “Bengalis” only arrived in Burma after the British takeover in 1885; report nothing about violence against “Bengalis” (but report every incident in which Buddhists are victims); and condemn all international media coverage about, and humanitarian aid to, “Bengalis” as meddlesome, uninformed, or biased. Some of these articles I refused to edit.
While in the Eleven newsroom, I found no dissenting view to challenge the newspaper’s situational ethics. This was a pity, since I liked my Burmese colleagues and enjoyed working with them. But they each had reasons to fear speaking out. All but two of the Eleven English staff (one Mon and one Rakhine) belonged to the ethnic Bamar majority. Two others had worked for The New Light of Myanmar, the official state mouthpiece. Far from encouraging multiple views—a hallmark of the journalistic independence CEO Than Htut Aung never fails to trumpet—EMG editors refused to include “Bengali” perspectives. Meanwhile, the bosses rewarded mindless adherence to state policy: one young journalist barely out of his teens, who said all the right things about “Bengalis,” enjoyed the title of Senior Editor. With all due respect to Zayar Nanda, clearly a bright young man with a promising future, I fear he may live to regret the Orwellian knee-slappers of those Op-Eds in which he argues that not a single Buddhist has ever committed an act of violence.
As for the CEO? My impression of Than Htut Aung is that of a man either perfectly at ease with the hypocritical irony of his self-righteous posturing for press freedom or cowed by government threats to revoke his media license. Whichever it is, the crusading libertarian and former medical doctor is unlikely to be taken seriously outside Myanmar as long as he turns a blind eye to the ugly, racist underbelly of the Buddhist Bamar nationalism he embraces. But then, one might argue, he is only reflecting majority opinion: if not even the country’s Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, is willing to speak out on behalf of the Rohingya, why would he?
Toward the end of my time at Eleven, Myanmar conducted its first nationwide census in thirty years (March 30 – April 10). In Rakhine State, the main issue was fear that “Bengalis” would self-identify as “Rohingya” and be recorded as such in the census, thus legitimizing their presence in the country by creating a “new” ethnicity whose status would be recognized by the government. For several days running, Eleven ran story after story about Rakhine Buddhist opposition to such a possibility. As well as census-takers and villagers, Eleven interviewed some of the same extremists quoted in other anti-“Bengali” stories. After a blizzard of such articles, it was impossible to decipher any actual news in them.
Rather than seeking solutions to the crisis in Rakhine State that recognize the universality of human rights—solutions that necessarily involve international assistance in reaching for some combination of repatriation, residency, and (of course) citizenship for the Rohingya—the Eleven Media Group consistently displays the same contempt for international opinion that the military junta once did. In doing so, it contributes to a climate of hatred and fear, enabling the kind of conditions that lead to genocide.
There could be no worse result of journalistic intervention than that—save actual genocide itself.