With The Myanmar Times in the middle of a serious threat to its very existence, one might be forgiven for thinking the exile media would relish the prospect of the newspaper’s demise, such is the level of animosity between Burmese news organisations inside and outside the country. But whatever feelings people have towards its former publisher, Ross Dunkley, surely the end of the paper would be a major setback for Burma’s news media and the flow of information in the country, in the same way that the demise of The Irrawaddy print edition was a major setback.
What critics fail to acknowledge is that without The Myanmar Times, the Burma cause would be worse off because ultimately everyone is trying to reach the same goals, namely greater freedom of expression and an improvement in the country’s situation. They are just trying to achieve these aims in very different ways.
While those criticising The Myanmar Times regularly point out that every article in the newspaper is censored, and in recent years the Ministry of Information has forced publication of state propaganda, they routinely fail to mention key positives that represent what could be lost.
Using funding and donations from Japan’s Sasakawa Peace Foundation, The Myanmar Times has trained dozens of Burmese journalists to an international standard. It has also provided Burmese journalists with well-paid jobs, thereby building journalistic capacity among people that otherwise may have become rickshaw drivers or clerks in office jobs.
In terms of information flow, although the newspaper is indeed censored, it also has amongst the largest on-the-ground presence of any news media outlet in the country, a major asset for those seeking information on Burma. It was therefore no surprise when The Myanmar Times produced pre-election coverage last year that was superior to anything else available, and that includes the exile media.
The paper was also surprisingly dissenting ahead of the election and, although censored, those with modest Burma knowledge knew how to read the articles, as they do with any other journal inside the country: readers simply read between the lines. This is a key point on censorship that most critics overlook, either willfully or due to ignorance: that although key information is missing, readers know what to expect and fill in the blanks elsewhere, thus avoiding any indoctrination.
So why are these major contributions overlooked? Much of the disagreement between news media inside and outside the country stems from a key difference in philosophy, mostly in regards to censorship. The very essence of the exile media is, of course, that it bypasses the censors, while publications inside do not.
Much of the exile media’s venom has been targeted at The Myanmar Times and Living Color in particular because they were considered close to the now-defunct Military Intelligence. Both gained their publishing licences through ties to MI, an arm of the junta blamed for much of the pre-2005 interrogation and torture that targeted Burmese dissidents.
The Myanmar Times has no doubt received additional critical attention due its status as a foreign investor, a position Aung San Suu Kyi reiterated in her response last week to Dunkley’s continuing legal problems. “We all have to work towards greater freedom of information but I don’t know whether that kind of freedom of information can be obtained by investing in Burma in the media through the authorities,” she told Malaysian journalists in Kuala Lumpur via an audio feed.
Where the exile media comes into its own is on stories that the generals don’t want us to read – an obvious plus. After all, don’t the best news publications talk directly to power?
In response, Dunkley answers his critics by arguing The Myanmar Times is on the playing field while the exile media is just watching from the sidelines. Where exile media claims to offer ‘the truth’, being further away from the scene and therefore the facts makes accuracy all the more difficult in a country not known for its clarity.
Whichever side you sympathise with – and clearly both make valid arguments – this difference in outlook has led to acrimony that over time has created a cycle of criticism from both sides. The recent funding realities that have seen exile media outlets lose money in favour of projects inside the country certainly have not helped resolve differences.
This persistent divide has not only exposed inherent hypocrisies on both sides, it has also played into the hands of the regime in that the subsequent lack of collaboration and mutual appreciation has weakened the flow of information on Burma. When media inside the country and outside respect and utilise each other’s strengths to improve their own transmission of information, they can begin to nullify junta efforts to promote silence and distortion. This means greater cooperation and communication in the interests of increasing access to information.
When unconstructive, one-sided and misleading criticism becomes the norm, not only have media outlets failed in terms of impartiality and accuracy – a fatal journalistic flaw – they contribute to a huge bubble of misinformation and destroy the possibility for cooperation.
This all represents too much wasted energy and intellectual dishonesty on the part of too many people that work on Burma. When these same people begin to acknowledge and utilise the positives produced by organisations that are too often considered ideological opponents, then they should realise they are not opponents at all. Disagreement and criticism is democratic and useful but only when it is accurate, balanced and constructive.
Most Burma media organisations have a genuine desire to further the cause of freedom of expression, reform and prosperity in the country, as shown by their actions, and this includes many publications inside the country. Once this reality is honestly and actively acknowledged, reconciliation among these groups can be realized. And then major progress on informing people about Burma can really begin.
Clive Parker has worked as a journalist at The Myanmar Times and The Irrawaddy.