DESPITE receiving brickbats at home and abroad over media coverage on the Rohingya crisis, Burmese journalists face hurdles that undermine their role as torchbearers of press freedom amid the profusion of fake news and hate speech.
Mratt Kyaw Thu, Senior Political Journalist at Yangon-based current affairs and business magazine Frontier Myanmar, says the last two years have been the toughest for both him and his colleagues, owing to domestic and international pressure for them to perform way beyond their capacity.
Mratt says oftentimes Burmese journalists are being called out for their seemingly lacklustre coverage of violence and exodus affecting hundreds of thousands of the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority.
But reporting on such a conflict under the challenging circumstances, according to Mratt, is easier said than done.
“So why don’t they (reporters) go to the border between Myanmar (Burma) and Bangladesh? One foreign reporter asked that question too easily, but there are many troubles from the Myanmar government (SIC).”
“The fundamental thing is that we do not have enough budget, and actually all Myanmar journalists want to go there to report about the crisis near the border of Bangladesh and Myanmar but we cannot,” he said.
“On the other hand, it takes two or three months to get a visa from the Bangladesh embassy in Yangon.”
Mratt said this during a talk entitled “Undermining Asia’s Free Press” during the Hawaii-based East-West Center’s International Media Conference in Singapore last week.
Another problem, Mratt highlighted, was that publishers all across the board were facing immense revenue losses, likely due to the proliferation of free online news content in the country and poor management issues.
Burma has made some democratic progress in recent years since the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi took federal power from the decades-ruling military government in 2015. Nevertheless, media freedom has suffered.
The Reporters Without Border’s (RSF) 2018 World Press Freedom Index ranked the country 137th out of 180. According to the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (Seapa), journalists in the country have been subjected to threats and violence from religious extremists.
The journalists who are often at “certain risk” were among those who covered national security, anti-corruption, religion, conflict, land rights, drug trafficking, and illegal logging, among others. And yet, amid all the risks and financial challenges, the journalists are expected to travel and report stories from battle zones where their safety is not assured.
“For example, local journalists lack self-confidence in reporting these sensitive issues,” Seapa’s Setbacks to media freedom and development report on Burma read.
“The country’s first elected civilian government in several decades has revealed itself similar to its military predecessors sentencing harsh punishment toward journalists who especially investigate corruption, conflict, and military security.”
Mratt also pointed to the recent dismissal of dozens of reporters from the Democratic Voice of Burma, an independent news organisation affected by a trend in declining revenue streams.
He also said it is common to find journalists with eight or nine years experience having serious thoughts on leaving the industry because the “public has lost trust in the media.” Morale is low, with many suffering depression, he said.
“Even for me, I don’t want to introduce myself as a reporter in Myanmar, because we feel ashamed to be journalists in Myanmar. Nobody respects us, whether they are military, government or parliamentary member, everyone, they don’t give any respect.”
“In fact, the Myanmar journalism industry has collapsed, it’s sad to say but it’s a reality.”