Covering the Rohingya: Separating Fact from Fiction

SPOTLIGHT, 25 Sep 2017

Al Jazeera – TRANSCEND Media Service

We examine how Myanmar’s government and military shape the media narrative surrounding the Rohingya crisis.


18 Sep 2017 – According to the latest figures, there are nearly 400,000 Muslim-majority Rohingya that have been forced from their homes in Myanmar.

The UN says it looks like a “textbook example” of ethnic cleansing. The country’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been widely condemned for lack of moral leadership and compassion in the face of the crisis, denting the Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s reputation.

The civilian government and the military seem to be speaking from the same scripts … The government … has been using terminology like ‘extremist’, ‘terrorist’, ‘separatist’. What that does is it appears to create this kind of hysteria which many in Myanmar have appeared to be listening to and which is fuelling support for the military.

— Oliver Slow, chief of staff, Frontier Myanmar

However, the story is not just about Aung San Suu Kyi. It is primarily about the Myanmar military, the flames and bullets it has used to dispossess the Rohingya and chase them from the country. And it’s about a government information campaign that reeks of propaganda.

“A huge amount of the media focus has been on Aung San Suu Kyi and almost all of it has been condemnatory … but she’s not the one carrying out the ethnic cleansing,” says Mark Farmaner, executive director of Burma Campaign UK. “It’s Min Aung Hlaing, the head of the military. He’s not even being referred to in any of this media coverage.”

The Myanmar constitution limits the powers of its civilian government. Aung San Suu Kyi and her ministers do not have authority over the military, which surrendered absolute power less than three years ago, after more than a half-century of military rule.

But Aung San Suu Kyi does have the power to criticise. And she has not criticised the forced eviction of hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingya, nor the military’s burning of Rohingya villages to the ground, nor questioned the role of the military.

Instead, Aung San Suu Kyi and her government have criticised the international news media and the UN workers documenting the Rohingya refugee story – dismissing their reports as fake news.

“Dismissal and denial of well-documented accusations, allegations and evidence is part of genocide. Dismissing the reports of hundreds of women who have been wronged and violated and Suu Kyi dismissing them as fake news, fake rape. That was what you read on Aung San Suu Kyi’s official Facebook page: fake rape,” says Maung Zarni, a Burmese human rights activists.

The state is feeding the domestic news media the same narrative and it’s being reinforced online. And while the relatively recent opening of Myanmar’s media and internet space has empowered new voices, it’s also provided Buddhist nationalists with new platforms to dispense fear and hatred of the Rohingya.

Back in the days of military rule, journalists from Myanmar fought hard for their freedoms. Some set up news outlets in exile. A news magazine called Irrawaddy based itself just across the border in Thailand, pushing a pro-democracy agenda.

The magazine now operates out of Yangon and – like most of the domestic news media – has adopted the government’s position on the Rohingya story. Its English-language site refuses to call Rohingya citizens of Myanmar. It calls them Bengalis instead.

The magazine’s editor, Aung Zaw, was interviewed on CNN earlier this month. His line on the Rohingya is in perfect harmony with the state’s, that they do not belong to Burma. In 2014, Zaw and his magazine were lauded by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists for coverage of Myanmar that the CPJ called “authoritative and independent”.

“The media organisations that were based in exile were much more professional, were much more balanced in their reporting. But now, even some of them are toeing the government line. It’s very worrying for the whole future of press freedom, and where people in Burma get their information,” says Farmaner.


Maung Zarni – adviser, European Centre for the Study of Extremism and Burmese human rights activist
Oliver Slow – chief of staff, Frontier Myanmar
Htaike Htaike Aung – executive director, Myanmar ICT for Development
Mark Farmaner – executive director, Burma Campaign UK

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