According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) an estimated 80,000 people were displaced by the sectarian conflict in Arakan state this summer, while reports of arson, rape and executions targeting Rohingyas continue to surface.
Although it may seem of minor importance to address press freedom and freedom of information in Burma during a time of crisis, these issues lay at the core of the conflict.
The Reporters Without Border’s report: Crisis in Arakan state and new threats to freedom of information, outlines how the government clamped down on the media and its coverage of the riots in the immediate aftermath of the rioting.
The lack of journalistic ethics and publication of racist rhetoric about the Rohingyas by certain newspapers, which contributed to the escalation of violence, is also a direct reflection of the country’s poor record on media freedom.
By seeking to understand this connection, the Burmese government could obtain a useful tool to help end the crisis, and moreover, prevent further ethnic clashes from erupting in the future.
Consequences for press freedom
Journalists who covered the sectarian crisis in Arakan state immediately faced repercussions. Safety became an issue amid the rising tide of nationalism and journals were routinely threatened online for allegedly siding with the Rohingya. Access to information deteriorated after President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency on 10 June, while unverified reports continued to circulate online.
Months later, on the ground reporting remains limited, particularly when it comes to interviewing members of the Rohingya population. Few foreign journalists are able to travel to Arakan state, and the small number of reporters who were able to visit Sittwe or Maungdaw pose as tourists. Given the visa regulations, they are only allowed to stay a few days, where they often work without fixers or translators.
The coverage of the conflict has inevitably led to historical contextualisation and discussions centred on the origins of the Rohingyas. Here, the stakes at play are considered of the utmost importance: by asserting the date from which the presence of the Rohingyas in the country can be traced, those against their presence in Burma aim to justify the current persecution of the minority, while Rohingya supporters look to reaffirm the legitimacy of the group’s place in the country.
These discussions have given way to the publication of historical “interpretations”, which in turn led to smear campaigns in the form of public protests and online articles that questioned the Rohingyas’ roots in the country and called for their expulsion from Burma.
These often-virulent attacks made the job of reporters and correspondents more difficult. The Democratic Voice of Burma had numerous abusive messages posted on their Facebook and emailed to their journalists, including some that were threatening, after the organisation published several articles on its website concerning the unrest in Arakan state.
Unfortunately, in its effort to regulate media coverage and calm the most bellicose commentators, the government chose to rely on threats and enforced draconian censorship practices that were on par with standards that preceded the country’s nascent reform period.
Absence of press freedom: an indirect cause of the crisis
In the crisis’ aftermath, the suppression of information has been observed only as a collateral victim of the calamity and not as one of its key factors. Many comments in the media and online assail the country’s malfunctioning democratic components without actually specifying what parts need to be replaced. But deeply rooted racism is obviously among the main factors that sparked the rioting in May.
As for many other forms of intolerance, the causes of racism have to be understood in relation to the long absence of freedom of information in Burma. That is to say, widespread racism among the Burmese population towards Rohingyas is a direct result, in good part, from the policy of censorship and absolute control of information exercised by the military junta for nearly half a century.
[pullquote] “The causes of racism have to be understood in relation to the long absence of freedom of information” [/pullquote]
The links between ethnic hatred and freedom of information is well established. On 3 May 2001, World Press Freedom Day, the Speaker of the General Assembly of the United Nations Harri Holkeri delivered a speech entitled “Fighting Racism and Promoting Diversity: The Role of the Free Press”.
In this statement, the late Finnish Prime Minister explained that: “freedom of the press and the free flow of information and ideas are powerful ways to combat racism, discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance. Societies that inhibit freedom of expression also inhibit the full enjoyment of human rights and foster intolerance.”
He later added that: “In my view, the media has an obligation to make a positive contribution to the fight against racism. This can be as simple as ensuring that in the media racist terms or derogatory stereotypes are not used and that there are no unnecessary references to a person’s race, religion or related attributes (…) We rely on [the media] to bring acts of racism or discrimination to our attention and to report factually about them. We rely on it to give all groups and communities a chance to be heard.”
In this sensible statement, not only is press freedom considered a necessary tool that can prevent the propagation of hateful sentiments, but also it can actively promote “a culture of tolerance and a better understanding of the evil of racism”.
Of course, only after a free media environment has been established and nurtured for a significant amount of time will it begin to bear fruit. By allowing the media to report freely and safely, the coverage will undoubtedly have an immediate and positive impact on the conflict in Arakan. Rumours and unverified reports should be replaced, or, at least, challenged by verified and balanced information.
However, expanding press freedom alone does not guarantee the practice of ethical and objective journalism and will therefore not be sufficient to prevent racist and discriminatory speech from appearing in the media. That is why the establishment of a self-regulatory system, aimed at promoting journalistic ethics, should figure among the government’s priorities.
If the creation of the Myanmar Core Press Council by the Ministry of Information on 10 August 2012 had been the result of a fully transparent and collaborative project between the government and civil society, then the announcement could have been received as good news. However, the government handpicked the 20 members in the Council, while members of the fourth estate were not given an opportunity to provide input.
On 20 August 2012, the Burmese government announced that it had abolished pre-censorship. However, at the same time, the censorship board circulated a set of rules to local news journals, which among other interdictions, prohibits criticism of the government. True self-regulation would inevitably mean shuttering the censorship board, or Press Scrutiny and Registration Division.
Again, the government failed to advance sincere and thorough reforms. Burmese journalists are still aware that potential legal suits, thanks in large part to the country’s repressive laws, hang over their heads like the sword of Damocles, which is likely to pressure editors into self censoring. The latest suit against the DVB reporter Zaw Pe, by a divisional education officer in Magway, is another example of a worrying trend where Burmese officials are using legal suits to target journalists covering the government.
Conservative forces within the country’s political apparatus continue to undermine efforts aimed at creating a healthier media environment. President Thein Sein and his Ministry of Information are yet to prove that they understand the value of press freedom.
– Benjamin Ismail is head of the Asia-Pacific desk at Reporters Without Borders.