Last month Tint San, the former CEO of the now defunct Unity Journal, was among hundreds of prisoners released under a presidential pardon. He and four editors and reporters from his publication had been sentenced to 10 years in prison with hard labour for reporting in 2014 on an alleged chemical-weapons factory operated by Burma’s armed forces, the Tatmadaw. He recently spoke with DVB about his views on media relations with the current government and how journalists should approach reporting on military matters.
Question: Within two weeks of taking office, the new NLD-led government released media workers including you from behind bars. What is your opinion of the new government in light of this?
Answer: Based on recent developments, we are delighted to welcome the new government. But it is still too early to make a judgement, as they have only been in office for a very short time. But I think that the media should cooperate with them and take a positive approach.
Q: Political observers are saying that there is likely to be less friction between the government and the media now that the country is under civilian rule. What is your take on this?
A: There may be less confrontation. But what really irritates us media workers is the way the word “ethics” is used to constrain us. There were a lot of media groups who sucked up to the previous government and they were rarely preached to about “ethics”, but when it comes to us, the word is used all the time.
Anyway, I think there will still be some friction during the current transition period. I would like to advise my fellow media workers to exercise caution when they write news about the military.
Q: What do you think should be done to establish a smooth liaison between the military and the media?
A: Firstly the Tatmadaw needs to stop being so suspicious of the media. We don’t hate the Tatmadaw — we are trying to approach them positively, so the Tatmadaw doesn’t need to have so many doubts about us. Moreover, they should provide information relating to the military in a timely and transparent manner. In that way, we can reduce confrontations.
For example, in our case, we were prosecuted for entering a restricted area. We were indicted on the charges despite repeated objections, but in the end, we were jailed not for trespassing, but for publishing sensitive information. So we were put on trial on one charge but jailed on another. And it wasn’t just us who entered the [military] facility. On average, between 500-1,000 local people go in and out everyday. We could have avoided the court case if the army had been transparent about what they were doing.
Q: Is there any particular advice you would like to give fellow reporters covering military-related news on the ground?
A: I would advise them to collect every bit of information they can. Our mistake was that although we contacted the government and the military, we did not publish their response. And we need to make clear whether a facility we are entering has restricted access or not — for example, the facility we entered was apparently restricted, but there was no indication that that was the case. And we need to know that the military is very sensitive about their facilities — they don’t like to see reporters even in their garment factories, because they don’t trust us. In order to alleviate this trust issue, we should confirm our news sources when we cover news.