YANGON, Myanmar (AA) – The image of Myanmar was badly marred as the humanitarian crisis has been deepening over the past several months following the last year crackdown by the military on Rohingya Muslims in western Rakhine state.
Since Aug. 25, 2017, more than 750,000 refugees, mostly children and women, have fled Myanmar and crossed into Bangladesh after Myanmar forces launched a crackdown on the minority Muslim community, according to Amnesty International.
At least 9,000 Rohingya were killed in Rakhine state during the first month of military operation, Doctors Without Borders said.
In a report published on Dec. 12, the global humanitarian organization said the deaths of 71.7 percent or 6,700 Rohingya were caused by violence. They include 730 children below the age of 5.
The Rohingya exodus continued to dominate the international media coverage while the local media fail to report the suffering of Rohingya people in Rakhine for many reasons, including media ownership.
The perfect example is of the Myanmar Times — the oldest private English-version publication in the country — which was acquired in 2004 by a Myanmar tycoon who has close links with the country’s military.
The paper had sacked its special investigation editor weeks after the crackdown begun in Maungdaw in 2017 for a report relaying claims that security forces had raped Rohingya women in Rakhine.
Over a dozen foreign editorial staffs have reportedly resigned or been fired in 2016 and 2017 over the battle between the management board and the newsroom regarding the Rohingya coverage.
'Most persecuted people'
The Rohingya, described by the UN as the world's most persecuted people, have faced heightened fears of attack since dozens were killed in communal violence in 2012.
The UN has documented mass gang rapes, killings — including of infants and young children — brutal beatings, and disappearances committed by security personnel. In a report, UN investigators said such violations may have constituted crimes against humanity.
One other main reason is the government’s restriction on the access to information.
According to the journalists, the Myanmar government has made it extremely hard for them to access Rakhine and report on the Rohingya crisis. Thus, the only way journalists can visit the area is through the government-sponsored tours.
The recent reports by the Myanmar Institute of Democracy (MID) said the situation of Rakhine state in most local media are covered “only from the perspective of authorities including Tamadaw (Myanmar Army).”
MID, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy which is a US-based non-profit organization, has been extensively monitoring the local media since it was formed in January 2013. It has published several reports about the media coverage of ethnicity, gender equality and conflicts.
“What we have learned from the surveys and researches is local media are relying on one-sided statement [from the government or the military] in covering the Rohingya crisis,” said Myo Min Zaw, project coordinator of MID.
“Only a few media dare to criticize the government and the military. Most are following the official narrative though they are aware of wrongdoings in Rakhine state,” he said last week.
'Two big challenges'
A woman journalist, who was previously associated with one of the two largest daily newspapers in Myanmar for five years, said the local journalists has been facing “two big challenges” for coverage of Rohingya issues.
The media house owners are afraid of losing profit by publishing stories which oppose the narrative of government and military, said the woman on the condition of anonymity out of fears for her safety.
“Because most of the Myanmar people support them in handling the situation in Rakhine,” she said, adding: “And getting the sensitive information [that officials don’t want public know] is a bit risky for local journalists.”
She recalled how a senior government official responded to one of her journalist friends when asked for comment on why military used helicopters in Rakhine last year.
“The question is simple, but the official got angry and shouted at her. She was also threatened of being labeled as a traitor if she writes any piece on the use of helicopter,” she said.
“For these reasons, it can be said that the local media reports do not reflect the situation on ground,” she said.
A French journalist, who has been based in Yangon for a year, said he could not get a chance to travel to Maungdaw, yet.
“I can easily contact some senior government officials for information about the Rohingya situation. But they never officially allowed me to go there. I was not able to join a guided tour.
“So I had to gather information using a local journalist based in state capital Sittwe,” he said.
Lack of capacity
The foreign journalists based in Yangon said they often fly to Bangladesh to get information about the Rohingya crisis.
An Australian multi-media journalist, who is based in Yangon and working as a freelancer for the past two years ago, had visited Bangladesh three times since Aug. 25, 2017.
“From Bangladesh, we got information that reflects the conflict on ground more than those from Myanmar. That’s why, we, foreign journalist often flew to Bangladesh,” she said on Saturday.
“But I think no one still has a clear picture of the whole story. We are not clear with how the conflict started and unable to verify if information we got from refugees there is true at all.
“What we know is the refugees are living in a very poor condition. That’s why most foreign media focus on their sufferings, I think,” she said.
Almost all local and foreign journalists have failed to verify the information they received or gathered due to the lack of access to the area, said Sein Win, one of the directors at Yangon-based Myanmar Journalism Institute.
He said local journalists are facing lack of capacity and funding as well as failed to change their old mindset [that Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh] […] while foreign media excessively focused on humanitarian grounds.
“However, I honestly say foreign media are more reliable,” he added.
* Names of the journalists are kept secret on their requests.