Information denial, the Junta way

BY Nava Thakuria| IN Media Practice | 04/09/2005
The Information Minister even appealed to Myanmarese journalists to launch a counter-offensive against the media offensive of internal and external "terrorist destructive elements."

Nava Thakuria, recently in Rangoon

The Burmese government has never been comfortable with the media. The military rulers in Rangoon have laws to scrutinize every political news story which goes for publication in local newspapers. However, the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) is annoyed with the foreign media, who are basically critical about its terrible track record regarding human right violation throughout the country. The SPDC argues that the foreign medias always publish or broadcast `motivated and fabricated` news, which are harmful for the country. In return the international agencies allege that it is simply impossible to receive the required feedback from the government in Rangoon, as and when needed for clarification or conformation.

The issue of bias and unauthenticated reporting by foreign media came alive once again with the recent news coverage of a coup in Rangoon against the SPDC chairman Than Shwe. In fact, rumours spread inside and outside Burma that Than Shwe, also President of the country, was toppled in a coup led by the Junta`s second strong man General Maung Aye and he was hospitalized at a Rangoon military hospital.

It may be noted that Senior General Than Shwe, 73  is in power for more than four decades in different capacities in the junta government. In fact, Burma has been under successive military regimes since 1962. That year on March 2, the country witnessed a coup led by the former head of armed forces General Ne Win which overthrew a democratically elected government led by U Nu. On September 18, 1988, another set of the military junta, then called the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) led by the then head of armed forces General Saw Maung, came to power.

In April 1992, Than Shwe removed General Saw Maung from the chairmanship of the military junta and he renamed it as the State Peace and Development Council. After grabbing the power as the head of SPDC, Than Shwe  had extended the house arrest of Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi. The National League for Democracy leader Suu Kyi was (and still) under confinement since 1990 with only few months` break time to time. "The Lady" of the golden land, as she is popularly known, was taken under house arrest lastly after the Deepayin massacre in May 2003. The Parade Magazine from U.S. has recently ranked Than Shwe, also Commander-in-Chief of Burmese Army as the third living worst dictator in the world.

The government denied the report of any coup in Rangoon and informed media that the SPDC chairman Than Shwe  was discharging the responsibilities with good health. The Minister for Information Brig. Gen. Kyaw Hsan while attending a Press Conference on August 28 in the capital clarified that  the President was serving the duties of the State from `the defence office`. His claim proved to be true. Than Shwe sat for discussion with the visiting Thailand Foreign minister Dr. Kantathi Suphamongkhon on September 1 in Rangoon. The fact that Than Shwe had been out of the public eye for many days that fuelled the rumour. He  was seen earlier in public when Mr. Ali Alatas, the special envoy of United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan met Than Shwe on August 19 in Rangoon.

The Information Minister Brig. Gen. Kyaw Hsan was critical of the foreign media`s role in releasing `motivated` news and broadcasting without authentication. He argued that a section of the media was spreading `fabricated` news fed by `internal and external destructive elements aiming to destabilizing the country`. Mentioning the name of British Broadcasting Corporation, the minister asserted, "It is known to all that at 8.15 pm on 23 August 2005, BBC broadcast a fabricated news on State leaders and the nation together with supplementary comments. Indeed, such news poses a grave danger to the nation. Under the press ethics, a broadcasting station should find out whether such a story which is very important for a nation is correct or not, and whether it is substantive or not, as it is more important than normal news items. They should air such important news only after ascertaining the authenticity and accuracy."

Asserting that the government, now-a-days has to take  a great deal of care to ensure harmony given the prevailing situation, to protect `the interests of the nation and the people`, Kyaw Hsan  also added, "It is common knowledge that internal and external destructive elements in collusion with certain foreign broadcasting stations are constantly broadcasting fabricated, exaggerated, instigative and slanderous news with the aim of encroaching on the State`s stability and national solidarity. This leads to panic among the public, misleading the people, and creating unrest." The Information Minister even appealed to the media persons in Myanmar to `launch a counter-offensive against media offensives of internal and external terrorist destructive elements.`

It may be noteworthy that the Myanmarese government still continues to ban sensitive news despite their repeated assurances of `flexible censorship policies`. The newspapers published from the country (mostly from Rangoon) have to get clearance from SPDC officials for a political news story. Extensive media coverage of any natural disaster, poverty and grievance of the people is banned, as the government believes that it would affect national interest. While the junta uses "The New Light of Myanmar", an English daily from the capital as its mouthpiece, a major English weekly "The Myanmar Times" is scanned regularly. Other Burmese periodicals mostly repot on sports (primarily football) and cultural activities and that way they avoid the political issues.

Responding to the allegation of the various international news agencies that it is difficult to confirm any news relating to SPDC as nobody comes forward with an official response, the minister declared that hereafter three officials would respond to the queries of the Press. He asked journalists to contact the Director-General U Nyan Lin of Consular and International Legal Affairs, Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the Head of Special Investigation Department of Myanmar Police Force Police Brig-Gen Myint Thein and the Managing Director of News and Periodicals Enterprise U Soe Win for any queries they may have. He also provided the journalists the contact phone numbers of the three officials (222197, 549199, 294523 respectively), reported in the state run newspaper "The New Light of Myanmar" next day.

But unfortunately, while this writer (from Northeast) tried to contact the assigned officials many times (during working hours), it yielded nothing.  First the lines were too disturbed. (Telecommunication facility in Myanmar is really very poor).  Secondly, all those responding to the numbers were speaking only in their (Burmese) language. Those attending the phone calls were so unfamiliar to English that they couldn`t even hand over the phone to the responsible officers. So, for a non-Burmese (or who doesn`t understand Burmese) journalist it is next to impossible to interact with the officers, not to speak of getting information from them.

What is the point in providing these numbers to foreign media, when they are not manned by English speaking staff? Or is it a ruse by the military government to save themselves from criticism for their continued ban on media?

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