Between a rock and a hard place
covering burma and southeast asia
Saturday, March 23, 2019
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Between a rock and a hard place


By Ein Myaung MAY, 1998 - VOLUME 6 NO.3


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In mid-July 1995, suddenly Rangoon airport was filled with journalists and cameramen all grabbing taxis to 54 University Avenue. They each hoped to be the first to interview Aung San Suu Kyi after her surprise release from house arrest. Expecting praise for setting her free, the Burmese military began giving most journalists, with a few notable exceptions, visas o­n demand.

However the regime soon tired of the bad press, and began increasing restrictions again. Journalist visas had to be applied for far in advance, stays were limited to a few days, and more and more journalists’ visa requests were denied with no explanation given.

Frustrated, some journalists have resorted to writing more pro-government stories in the hopes of being granted entry the next time. Editors, seeing some of their competition still being allowed in, have also been known to cut facts from stories which portray the military in a bad light. Meanwhile, Burmese stringers in Rangoon who have dared to cover off-limits subjects such as the December 1996 student demonstrations have been sternly reprimanded by Military Intelligence.

If the foreign media cannot get into the country from time to time and the Rangoon stringers are under tight control, how can they really cover Burma? Access is essential. But they also have a responsibility to present the news as objectively as possible. Should they then be distorting or selectively representing events so they can possibly gain entry?

Even if they do get in, journalists are not allowed to visit sensitive areas, and they know that anyone they interview may face trouble from the authorities. Moreover, many are constrained by limited budgets and the expectation that they file two or three stories a day. As a result, few can travel outside the capital city of Rangoon, and even there, they can do little more than talk to a handful of English-speaking government and NLD spokespersons. o­nly the occasional investigative reporter lucky enough to have time and money can go further afield and explore issues and sentiments more deeply.

While the military regime now turns down visa requests for most journalists seeking to enter the country individually, they have been rolling out the red carpet for a pre-selected few o­n trips organized by US lobbying firms.

In April 1998, o­ne such firm, Bain and Associates, worked with the Burmese military regime to bring a group of well-known journalists in to reassess the military’s progress o­n drug eradication. In between military-arranged appointments, the journalists had some free time to interview people o­n their own. Nevertheless, they were informed in the letter of invitation that they would not be permitted to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi.

This raises many ethical questions. By agreeing to participate in a trip in which a visit to Aung San Suu Kyi was expressly forbidden, they were denying a voice to the person who would certainly present an alternative viewpoint. Moreover, by not taking issue with this restriction, they could be undercutting her legitimacy and bargaining power in the political arena. What are the responsibilities of journalists in such a situation?

Should journalists agree to go o­n such promotional tours (even though they paid themselves) where the goverment hopes to present information in such a way that they will come back singing the military’s praises? If they don’t go, they are giving up a rare chance to observe current realities in Burma. In fact, some wrote stories that were critical of the military’s handling of drug addiction in the country and questioned the seriouness of the junta’s anti-narcotics measures.

Should the media admit in their stories (as Newsweek recently did) that they obtained their information while o­n a government-sponsored tour? These are not easy questions.

In covering the pro-democracy movement, responsible journalists face another quandry. If they report weaknesses and splits within the pro-democracy camp, their articles may be reprinted in full or part in Burmese state-run newspapers. Written by “objective” outsiders, such articles lend legitimacy to the government’s own propaganda. Other stories which portray the democracy groups in a favorable light are, of course, never presented in the government-controlled press.

For this reason, pro-democracy groups in exile find it particularly difficult to see independent Burmese journalists reporting o­n splits or crises among their ranks. Burmese journalists, they feel, should know better.

Moreover, having never lived under anything but a dictatorial regime, some democracy activists are shocked to suddenly find themselves under fire from people, Burmese and non-Burmese, whom they thought of as their friends.



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