Burmese television: Meet Asia’s model public broadcaster!

Photo courtesy Associated Press

In the wake of Cyclone Nargis that wreaked havoc in Burma, the world has once again realised the brutality and ruthlessness of the military regime that runs the country.

And as the United Nations and aid agencies struggle with the incredibly uncaring Burmese bureaucracy to get much needed emergency relief for the affected Burmese people, the media outside Burma are having great difficulty accessing authentic information and images.

Despite the massive disaster and resulting tragedy, Burma remains closed to foreign journalists, especially the visual media. No doubt the memories of the monk-led pro-democracy protests of late 2007 are still fresh in the minds of the ruling junta and their propagandists. The few courageous foreign reporters who managed to get in at the time ran enormous personal risks, and Japanese photojournalist Kenji Nagai was shot dead by a Burmese soldier while filming demonstrations.

Unable to report from the multiple scenes of disaster, and lacking a wide choice of reliable local sources willing to go on the record, international news agencies and broadcasters have been forced to quote the government-owned Burmese television station, MRTV.

Global news leaders like Al Jazeera, BBC and CNN have all used MRTV visuals to illustrate their news and current affairs reportage. A recent example from Al Jazeera, posted on 8 May 2008:

The image monopoly by MRTV wouldn’t have mattered so much if they at least provided an accurate account of the unfolding events in its own country. But that seems far too much to expect of this mouthpiece of the Rangoon regime. In Burma’s darkest hour in recent memory, MRTV would much rather peddle the official propaganda – never mind the millions made homeless by the recent disaster.

Here’s an insight from the Inter Press Service, the majority world’s own news agency, reporting from their Asia Pacific headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand:

BURMA: Cyclone Nargis Exposes Junta’s Anti-People Attitude
By Larry Jagan, IPS

Worse, there is evidence emerging that the military authorities had ample warning of a storm brewing in the Bay of Bengal but chose to ignore, or even suppress, it.

The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) which keeps a close track of geo-climatic events in the Bay of Bengal and releases warnings not only to provinces on the Indian east coast but also to vulnerable littoral countries said it warned Burmese authorities of Cyclone Nargis’ formation and possible approach as early as on Apr. 26.

“We continuously updated authorities in Myanmar (as Burma is officially called) and on Apr. 30 we even provided them a details of the likely route, speed and locations of landfall,’’ IMD director B.P. Yadav told IPS correspondent in New Delhi, Ranjit Devraj.

Burma’s meteorology department did post a warning on its official website on Apr. 27 but no effort was made to disseminate information to the people, much less to carry out evacuations along the coastline or from the islands on the Irrawaddy Delta.

By the time state-run media, which has been continuously spewing propaganda and exhorting the public to vote ‘yes’ to Saturday’s constitution referendum, issued its first cyclone alert on Friday afternoon it was too late for the hapless residents of Rangoon.

courtesy Reuters

Elsewhere in the report, IPS says:

Pictures of soldiers removing fallen trees and clearing roads in Rangoon on the state-run television have further infuriated many in the city. “This is pure propaganda and it’s far from the truth,” e-mailed a Burmese journalist, asking not to be identified for fear of the consequences. “Why do foreign broadcasters show them too –Burmese government propaganda is a disgrace enough to journalism,” he fumed.

“I saw some soldiers getting onto a truck yesterday,” said a 50-year-old resident. “They had no sweat on their shirts, despite what was shown on TV!”

“My wife saw three truckloads of soldiers parked in front of a fallen tree, none of them got down to remove it,” he added.

And here is what Dinyar Godrej has to say on the website of New Internationalist, another pro-South, liberal media outlet. In a post titled ‘Seeing but not believing’, he says:

“Burma is shut off from foreign journalists (unless they are invited in by the military regime to cover specific showpiece events). Western news channels have had to rely on state run television for their moving images.

“So while the death toll is now officially 22,000 (unofficially up to 50,000), with 40,000 people missing and a million homeless; and while the regime is coming in for bitter criticism for its foot-dragging over opening up to international aid and the utter incompetence of its own relief effort so far (which has reached only a tiny fraction of the people affected), we are watching on our television screens soldiers handing over food parcels. We can see nothing of the grief or rage of the people going hungry and thirsty (many water sources are too contaminated to use). They do not talk on camera. Instead they sit obediently in the state TV images, taking what’s given to them. And we watch them, while listening to the numbers and being told of the heightening crisis.”

Appalling as these revelations are, they don’t surprise us. Indeed, MRTV is not alone in this kind of shameless abuse and prostitution of the airwaves, a common property resource. A vast majority of the so-called ‘public’ broadcasters in Asia behave in exactly the same callous manner. This is why I don’t use the term ‘public broadcaster’ to describe these government propaganda channels – because, whatever lofty ideals their founding documents might have, most of them are not serving the public interest any more (if they ever did).

As I commented in Feb 2008: “In developing Asia, which lacks sufficient checks and balances to ensure independence of state broadcasters, the only thing public about such channels is that they are often a drain on public money collected through taxes. Their service and loyalties are entirely to whichever political party, coalition or military dictator in government. When the divide between governments and the public interest is growing, most ‘public’ channels find themselves on the wrong side. No wonder, then, that discerning views have abandoned them.”

Read Feb 2008 post: Why do development Rip van Winkles prefer ‘Aunties’ without eyeballs?

I don’t hold a grudge against the hapless staff of MRTV, who simply must remain their Masters’ Voice at all times to stay alive. Those working for government channels in countries with greater levels of democratic freedom can’t take refuge in this excuse. They must be held accountable for their continuing propagandising and the disgusting pollution of the airwaves.

And the incredibly naive and sycophantic UN agencies – especially UNESCO – also share the blame for their feeble yet persistent defence of the so-called public broadcasters. Years ago, I stopped attending meetings discussing public service broadcasting (PSB) in Asia, which these agencies equate with what the government channels are doing. I see yet another of these exercises in futility being lined up as part of the Asia Media Summit 2008 coming up in a few days in Kuala Lumpor.

As I wrote in February, if these development agencies are seriously interested in broadcasting that serves the public interest, they must engage the privately-owned, commercially operated TV channels, which are the market leaders in much of Asia.

Except, that is, in tightly controlled, closed societies like Burma, where government channels are the only terrestrial TV available for the local people.

Images courtesy AP and Reuters, as published by The New York Times online