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A bad deal

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - April 10, 2021 - 12:00am

CNN, my former employer, found itself in the middle of a furious debate over its coverage of the Myanmar/Burma military coup this week. CNN was invited by the coup leaders on what some journalists call “a dog and pony show.” In other words, a team would be given access as part of the junta’s propaganda and be presented with situations designed to boost favorable publicity.

Once the team left Myanmar, it turned out that another journalist funded by the Pullitzer Foundation and working for the South East Asian Globe and Al Jazeera English had also been included on the assignment but had kept quiet until she was ready with her report and the editorial team ready with their explanations for going to the event.

There were several problematic aspects to their coverage. The Assistance Association of Political Prisoners’ (Burma) latest tally is that 614 people have been killed by this junta, 2,857 currently detained and 500 issued arrest warrants. Videos taken since the coup on Feb. 1 show how teams of soldiers are arresting unarmed civilians, beating them up and killing them, execution style, on the spot.

In mid-March, the United Nations’ Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar announced that it is collecting evidence regarding arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearances and the use of force, including lethal force, against those peacefully opposing the coup. “The persons most responsible for the most serious international crimes are usually those in high leadership positions. They are not the ones who physically perpetrate the crimes and often are not even present at the locations where the crimes are committed. To prove their responsibility requires evidence of reports received, orders given and how policies were set. This is normally not evidence that can be provided by the victims, but rather requires that those who received or were aware of illegal orders or policies reveal the truth. I encourage those who have such information to contact the Mechanism,” said Nicholas Koumjian, the head of the Mechanism.

Understanding the dangers involved, the UN has said that people who wish to provide information to the Mechanism “are encouraged to do so safely and with an abundance of caution.” The Mechanism specifically recommends using the secure means of communication. “Your safety is of utmost importance to the Mechanism, therefore if at any time you believe it may be unsafe to share information via secure means of communication, please refrain until it is safe to do so.”

The UN’s caution is a stark contrast to CNN’s approach. At least eight people were arrested after they spoke to the reporter, Clarissa Ward. They don’t provide any substantive information as far as the report shows, just saying they want justice and democracy. Ward notes how one gets goosebumps and another shakes with fear as they speak to her, telling them how brave they are and subsequently washes her hands of any responsibility, arguing that they had approached her knowing the risks involved. CNN’s video clips also show the news anchors congratulating Ward on her bravery (despite the fact that CNN was never threatened and her visit was protected by the military who didn’t stop arresting and killing people while the trip was underway).

The social media storm about CNN’s visit started as soon as it became known Ward was in the country. She posted a picture of her inbound boarding pass on Twitter. As people in Myanmar became aware of her presence, they would bang their pots and pans in a noise barrage, understanding how carefully choreographed her visit would be. Even though she was surrounded by minders designed to intimidate her, they could not stop her hearing that.

As criticisms came in questioning the ethics of accepting the invitation (this was not coverage sought out by CNN as far as I can deduce) and terms of the military responsible for so much bloodshed and getting civilians arrested, Ward responded on Twitter. “Very striking that I am being absolutely inundated with positive, heartfelt messages from people in Myanmar, while a handful of white male academics/commentators (none of them in the country) write endless screeds about how offensive my trip is to the people of Myanmar,” she tweeted.

Burmese women journalists in particular took exception to being dismissed. My own problem was that the response evaded the actual issues, focusing on who she thought was raising them. For example, why had CNN made a deal with the Myanmar military? What did they offer that CNN couldn’t get from journalists and citizens who are risking their lives to tell world? Why had CNN decided not to go to Myanmar’s border areas to report about minority ethnic groups properly without being constrained by alleged war criminals? Did CNN really not realize that they wouldn’t get access to ordinary people and that if they did speak to anyone they would face arrest, torture or worse? (CNN now reports that eight of those arrested have been released, though there are some unconfirmed reports about another three people having been arrested whose fate is unclear.) CNN has not reported if there have been any assurances from the military about their future, now that it has put out a critical report showing their faces close up.

Some commentators have used the term “parachute journalism” for this kind of coverage to describe personalities without in-depth knowledge being brought in to cover a situation who can leave any time without consequence or accountability.

For people, foreign and Burmese, who speak the language and have been reporting from there for some time, it has been galling to hear CNN and Ward talk as if no independent journalists have reported on this. In particular the pushback came when Ward reported the military line that it was the protesters who were causing instability that could start a civil war because of their violence. The violence has clearly been on the side of the well-armed and brutal military, which has been engaged in civil wars on the borders for 70 years.

Most disappointing was that CNN’s coverage has apparently failed to provide anything really exclusive or insightful. Ward’s reporting so far has not held back on criticism of the military but there’s already been plenty of information about them, as well as the bravery of protestors. If you’re on social media you can see all this for yourself and make your own judgement about the whole (mis)adventure. You might agree that this was a bad deal all round that backfired on everyone involved.

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