World Association of Newspapers Bogus Award

Press freedom an oxymoron in Bangkok

Last week the World Newspaper Congress rolled into Bangkok. One highlight of this circus of newspaper executives and editors mulling a shrinking newspaper franchise is the Golden Pen of Freedom award.

The annual Congress is put together by WAN-Ifra, an industry association headquartered in Europe. The group has made a big push into Asia in recent years and has a regional headquarters in Singapore, which some even inside the association feel is an odd location for a group that promotes press freedom in addition to helping executives with ad strategies and technology issues.

The selection for this award is by the 21-member board of the World Editors Forum  which this year includes editors of The Star in Malaysia and The Straits Times in Singapore  both ASEAN media which should know the Myanmar context better than their international counterparts.

Given the track records of these newspapers in their own countries, where they are heavily influenced by their respective governments, it is not surprising that the boss of Eleven Media in Yangon was picked as exemplar for this year's Golden Pen with no objection from the two ASEAN editors. The candidate fits the mold of paper heroes faking it abroad as champions of democratic freedom, justice and media independence.

We know Asia better
Press and ruling party connivance is a long-established ASEAN bad habit, which both Thai and Indonesian newspapers have mostly broken free of, while Malaysia and Singapore remain stuck. Eleven Media is a member of the Asian News Network (ANN), which includes The Star of Malaysia, Straits Times of Singapore and the China Daily. ANN is headquartered in Bangkok, managed by The Nation newspaper. ANN's motto is "We know Asia better". It is sponsored by the well-intentioned but somewhat naive Konrad Adenauer Foundation of Germany through its Singapore regional office.

That vaunted superior knowledge of Asia was absent when the Golden Pen was thrust on Dr Than Htut Aung, whose acceptance speech began with astonishment at his selection.

"When I was informed about this award, I was really surprised. I never expected to be recognized for my profession, and for my work. To be honest, I have previously only heard of this Award. I didn't know what it meant or who were the recipients. After investigation, I realize that this is a very prestigious Award."

Then to script, Than played the part of fearless campaigner against a repressive regime. "Those who cannot accept the changes are doing everything they can to block reform progress. They want to impose indirect control on the media despite all appearances of liberalization. They are creating network to intensify the propaganda and to attack political figures and journalists. They are responsible for inciting religious riots; armed conflicts... leading to displacement of thousands of people... as you may already know."

What about the Rohingya minority
The press hero posture does not square with Than's leadership of a sustained media crusade against the persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine state. He accuses the news agencies AFP and Reuters, CNN and BBC of "biased Western reporting" and for good measure turned on The Bangkok-based Nation as well. He has warned local reporters working for international news agencies of disloyalty.

He refutes eyewitness reportage of police and army shooting at defenseless Rohingya communities while looking on passively as organized mobs burn their villages. His media alleges that the true culprits are Rohingya terrorists and that the Burmese are hapless victims.

Indonesia and Kuwait have made official representation to the Myanmar government to protect its Muslim minority from rampage, rape, looting, arson, murder and displacement into refugee camps.

None of that has had any impact. There seems to be a concerted strategy to evict the Rohingya through terror. It is nothing short of an ethnic cleansing exercise. And Eleven Media is at the forefront of the disinformation offensive.

Resettle them
Last June at the height of the riots, the Myanmar government arrested 10 UNHCR workers, charging three with "stimulating" the disturbances. When Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, sought their release, President Thein Sein asked him to resettle the 1 million Rohingya Muslims into refugee camps in Bangladesh or elsewhere. The UN rightly rejected the idea.

That was followed in October 2012 by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon's statement: "The vigilante attacks, targeted threats and extremist rhetoric must be stopped," he said.

In November, Doctors Without Borders reported that all its local aid staff quit after being threatened for treating Muslims. Pamphlets and posters were being distributed in Rakhine state warning Burmese against assisting Rohingya victims.

Rohingya party nominees rejected
As further official erasure of the legitimacy of its Muslim citizens, the Election Commission for the 2015 polls refuses to register Rohingya officers of political parties. After the May 5th meeting of 18 political parties with Thein Sein, the Election Commission chairman Tai Aye confirmed that no Rohingya submission will be accepted for the 2015 election.

This anti-Rohingya sentiment is echoed in almost all the Yangon newspapers with the exception of the Myanmar Times. Even Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Ki has been deafeningly silent on this religious targeting of Myanmar's minority Muslims. Her National League for Democracy party chiefs in Rakhine state have declared that the Rohingya are not Burmese and need to be disciplined accordingly.

Somehow human rights, security and justice cannot be extended to the Rohingya. The tyranny of the majority rules. The opposition, the government, army, police and mass media are all complicit in the vendetta.

Myanmar Times' Dunkley
Australian Ross Dunkley secured a weekly newspaper license in 2000 with the son of a general heading Military Intelligence as his local partner. His News Corp. experience and training served him well to build the weekly Myanmar Times into the paper of reference for the international community in Yangon. He also secured a license to publish a local language title.

Both are commercially successful. He invests heavily in training his local reporters, many of whom have come from the state-owned New Light of Myanmar, which a recent Vanity Fair magazine article describes as an Orwellian mouthpiece of the regime.

For a country isolated by the military for 50 years, Myanmar Times has established benchmarks for professional journalism and guarded news disclosure for more than a decade. For a foreigner that is a tricky tightrope act that Dunkley has deftly managed.

In the process he has created a pool of local reporters who understand the difference between propaganda and journalism.

Unfortunately for Dunkley, former General No.1 Than Shwe purged Military Intelligence in 2004, locking his partner in jail. The local shares passed into the hands of a regime crony. Dunkley continued to assert effective day-to-day control as the managing partner.

The daily newspaper licenses granted on April Fool's Day this year excited Dunkley's partner and the shadowy faction behind the front man. Dunkley is being asked to sell his 49 percent stake. He has refused. For Dunkley, the opportunity to convert his successful weekly franchises into dailies is the big payoff he has been waiting for. He does not want that snatched away by regime goons.

Having failed to intimidate Dunkley, the shadowy forces seeking ownership of his newspaper have trumped up charges against him for immigration irregularities, possession of drugs and assault on a bar girl. His passport has been confiscated. He cannot leave Myanmar while these court cases snail along. The harassment continues but the Aussie is determined to slug it out for now.

If there is a case for recognition of editorial spunk in Myanmar, Ross Dunkley would top the list. Was the World Editors Forum board being politically correct? Were they badly advised? Were they just careless and negligent? Whatever the cause for this Golden Pen farce, WAN credibility is shot and the award sullied. The role of media in developing countries is too critical for such mistakes.

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