Truth over the Junta: The Choice that Myanmar Journalists Make

Challenging power is the heart of journalism. Be it a democratic government or a military dictatorship, media outlets challenge the authorities by questioning their work. In post-coup Myanmar, journalists, both from mainstream and alternative media, take up the duty of recording and reporting the military regime’s crimes and atrocities, yet, the work gets harder when the regime strategically cracks down on the independent media. Multiple questions arise on how the media is portraying Myanmar’s armed revolution, how they are collecting accurate data from the ground, and how they are sustaining themselves. In an attempt to answer these questions, we talked with Nathan Maung, founder of Kamayut Media, who himself was detained by the junta for more than three months in March 2021. 

MM: The State Administration Council (SAC), led by its spokesperson General Zaw Min Tun, continues to hold press conferences to disseminate its narratives, and there are media outlets that still cover these conferences. What do you think about these media channels?

NM: When we talk about journalism, we can talk about its principles such as nonpartisan, balanced reporting, etc., but these principles are more like aspirations because when it comes to adopting them in practice, people can interpret them differently; like collecting different narratives and all. That’s why some media outlets continue to write the military’s narratives and cover its press conferences. From what I see, the majority of media outlets still operating inside the country are scared of the junta, and some are nurtured by the military itself. Even media people like me do not know many of those journalists who appeared at the SAC pressers. I think these people are happy to replace professional journalists who can no longer operate under the junta. If you look at the SAC pressers, neither journalists nor spokesperson are professional. The so-called journalists asked questions that already presumed the National Unity Government (NUG) and People’s Defense Forces (PDF) as terrorists such as “Why hasn’t the Union Commission Election (UEC) dissolved the National League for Democracy (NLD)?” It means they do not understand the current political landscape in Myanmar at all. Myanmar’s current situation is unlike the power struggle between democrats and republicans in the US nor the conservatives and labor party. This is a revolution with the majority of the population on one side, and the military on the other. In this situation, refusing to take a side and calling themselves professional journalists is rather inhumane. If they are afraid of the danger that comes with journalism, such as the possibility of getting arrested, families taken as hostages, or houses being ransacked, then leave the profession for good, and stop talking about the press industry. Now some of them are no longer working as media professionals, yet commenting about professionalism in media and taking the moral high ground. These people are trying to shape the country’s politics with military narratives, so I’m not surprised at all.

MM: In the recent pressers given by General Zaw Min Tun, he used pretty vulgar words, and questioned or even went on and accused the local media are favoring the NUG. In your view, what do you think of current local news outlets and their objectivity in covering Myanmar news?

NM: Well it’s obvious. Local media outlets report in favour of the NUG and PDF, and against the military in terms of language, of course. If you ask me if it is allowed or not, it’s the news outlets’ choice, taking a political stand. And I like it, honestly, because it is transparent where a media outlet stands, and the audience can also understand the stance of the media they are consuming. One thing though, when a media outlet decides to take a political stance by compromising its professionalism, it must make sure to provide accurate information, and be responsible for the information it is disseminating to the larger public. As long as the information is correct, its trustworthiness is not affected. But if its stories start to deviate from the truth, the media needs to be held accountable for that. Some of the media outlets that still report about Myanmar are now operating outside the country, but a few remain in the country, changing their names and still operating under the regime. But under the regime, they can never work as professional media. I’m not saying that they are not professional because they do not report in favour of the NUG; and they are also not in favour of the military as well. But the question is, without being critical to the current situation, will their reporting impactful for the society? Because I strongly believe that journalists should work for the betterment of our society.

MM: Following up the local media, some outlets have been criticized for using slang languages like ordinary people such as “fascist military” or “army dogs” and often share certain news about the junta’s losses in a celebratory tone. Do you notice this kind of reporting, and how do you find them?

NM: Yes, of course, I notice them. And to answer this question, we should look back at how the Western media portrayed Japan, Hitler, and Mussolini. No media portrayed Hitler as a German nationalist leader, similarly for Japan, they called “fascist”. And now when we call the military what it is, which is “fascist military”, the Western journalists are questioning our ethics. The West used media as a tool when their national interest was at risk -similarly with the Russia-Ukraine war as well. Right now, our national interest is severely challenged by the junta, and we know what we are up against. So we honestly should not even care when the Western media call-out on us for being biased against the military. What I’m extremely worried about is the media using its power to divide our unity. We’ve seen that before – using the military’s narrative of the Rohingya as it is in headlines or xenophobic and discriminative language against ethnic minorities. Those kinds of media reports destroyed the trust and unity among the diverse communities in the country, and those media remain till today. If media outlets that are being questioned for their ethic these days do not stir up tensions among diverse communities, among genders or people with different sexual orientations, and unite the public against the common enemy, then they are on the right track.

MM: Covering the Myanmar issues, there are some media outlets that give a platform to the murderous junta, such as exclusive interviews with the regime’s spokesperson or getting the junta’s narrative in the name of “balanced reporting”. Some of these media outlets used to be well-respected by people and much-hated by successive military regimes. Can you make sense of the reason they changed?

NM: I tried to make sense of the way they changed, and I found out that people who lead these media outlets hate our current Spring Revolution, led by Generation Z, and this hatred is the foundation of many problematic things we notice. These people led the 1988 uprising to topple the dictatorship back then, fled to border areas when they were cracked down, and some eventually became journalists or intellectuals and experts. Fast forward 30 years, now they have experiences, and they know what the military is capable of. My only understanding is that they failed in the 8888 Uprising, their democracy movement failed, and it gave them trauma. When the 2021 coup was staged, the generation of “video game players” called out on the military by chanting “Don’t act like it’s 88 in 21”, these former activists were offended, and were reminded of their failure. They thought the youths disrespected them so they attempted to contain and discredit the momentum of the Spring Revolution. By tuning out the youths’ fight against the junta, these people, via the media outlets they managed, give a platform to people like General Zaw Min Tun, reported in ways that discredit the revolution. It’s all based on their trauma. When I look at the culture of politicians from mainland Myanmar, I agree with what Daw Aung San Suu Kyi once said. She said that the problem of Burmese politicians is jealousy and factionalism. People get jealous when they are insecure about losing their space or statuses to someone else, then followed by factionalism. Galon U Saw couldn’t accept that a 30-something Maung Aung San became a national figure and that his political role was no longer valid, which consequently led to the assassination of Aung San. Like it or not, it’s the political culture we have. Some of the problems that the 2021 generation is facing are based on this political culture. Basically, jealousy and factionalism remain root causes of some of our political problems.

MM: How accurate, do you think, are current news reporting about the armed confrontations and death tolls?

NM: Facts reported are quite precise because their news sources are locals from conflict areas, or PDFs so their source of information is quite reliable. News is written based on the statements issued by the resistance fighters, or interviews given by spokespersons of the resistance forces. In regards to arson attacks on villages, news media reported by interviewing villagers so the facts cannot go so wrong. Since news reporting is not an investigation project, we do not need to verify with 100 sources. But the reports made by exiled media about the Hpruso Christmas Eve massacre last year are pretty close to the report by the independent investigation commission. By looking at cases-by-cases like this, I do not see that there is much deviation from the truth. But at this point, news presentations should be changed. News should be more analytical, and the 20th-century news reporting style is no longer relevant. Several events and happenings are reported each day – so much data! But if we are not given the analysis of these events, we do not know the bigger picture. News media should take this responsibility. So many armed confrontations and casualties are reported every day in Sagaing, Shwebo plain, Dawna mountainous area. I want news outlets to be more analytical by giving strengths and weaknesses of our revolution, critically analysing the situation, and questioning the regime’s moves – compact analytics will be very valuable. For audiences who were deprived of news for decades before, they are new to news consumption as well. So they need to be provided with analytical news to get a better understanding of the country’s situation, instead of normal reporting. If the media can take the role in explaining the nationwide situation and impact of the revolution to the public, maybe the way New York Times’s news presented, then the public will see the bigger picture, be motivated and committed to the revolution.

MM: Are Myanmar’s independent media outlets capable of doing such analytical reporting, considering its limited freedom and capacity building in the past decade?

NM: It’s not practical for journalists who remain in the country. Also, resources are not just about money or technology – but rather a journalist’s capacity to analyse the information he/she receives and reports for the audience. So I feel that exile media, with the leadership of talented editors, should try this new form of reporting. Instead of focusing on quantity, the news outlets should spend more time on the quality, especially for the analytical reporting.

MM: Let’s talk about the parallel government NUG. Do you think it has been using the power of the media effectively?

NM: No doubt, the NUG has its weakness in its PR campaigns, but then there are no other political forces that are strong with public relations because, throughout, they underestimated the power of the media. Now, the NUG has shown that they support and empathise with the journalists, but nothing more than that. It cannot use the role and power of the media to the fullest – they would give interviews only when journalists approach. They do not have a systematic PR strategy. Again, Myanmar politicians are not prepared for public relations, I’ve seen in the past decade right. With the rise of influencers (celebrities), the parallel government lets social influencers take a lead in its public relations, not the media outlets. In the Federal Charter, it is written that the role of journalists will be respected and all, but I would really want the government to set up a federal level commission, like the way they have set up a commission for women and children affairs. They are not giving enough space to the media, and they do not know that they should. The NUG must prepare the PR strategy right now because after the revolution, there will be an interim period where we will be drafting a new constitution. How would they communicate with the public about the new constitution? And in those moments, of course, there will be opposing forces that will attack them at any chance. How would they counter these kinds of attacks without a strategic communication plan? 

MM: Beyond this revolution, what would you like to see in the media industry?

NM: I want to see a media landscape that is nonpartisan, encourages liberal democracy, and guarantees the freedom of the press. Instead of Myanmar-centric media outlets, I want to see media that voices the ethnic minority groups. When we say media, it’s not just about news – it includes news, film, theatre, music, and literature. It’s a massive sector, and post-revolution, we can reconstruct this sector strategically and systematically. In the process of developing a public service news sector that strengthens ethnic media outlets, we need to set up a federal commission for media. We can look at the regulations from international standards. But then again, I know I am being too hopeful. After the revolution, I can see that people will end up arguing and discussing, without actually putting the ideas into action. So, if we get stuck in this stage, I only put my faith in the younger generation. We need their input.

MM: What do you think about alternative media outlets which emerged after the coup?

NM: I love it. I love that lots of alternative press emerged with their own narratives and values. And I really hate to see any attempt to shape them into one direction. I love the fact that these outlets are usually led by youths, operating very freely. But the only concern I have for them is sustainability for the future. I’ve worked as a media professional for more than 20 years, and the ultimate problem I faced was financial sustainability in the end. Personally, I think about how we can include these alternative media in a sustainable development plan. The advertising model is ideal, but it is not healthy when advertisers directly communicate with content creators -they will just influence the content. So I feel that we need to protect content creators from advertisers and their influences. I want to brainstorm a new business model which helps and protects content producers so that they can sustain themselves for a long time. That’s a dream that I have for the future.

Note: Hanthar Nyein, Nathan Maung’s colleague who was arrested on the same day, received two-year jail time by the junta’s court in March 2022 for violating Section 505a of the Penal Code for incitement. The family is in regular contact with Hanthar Nyein, who is in good health, focusing on mediation during his time inside the cell. 

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