CNN wades into murky ethical territory in Myanmar. Again.
By Joshua Carroll and Tin Htet
Paing (*) – Columbia Journalism Review
April, about fifteen soldiers showed up at an outdoor market in the north of
Myanmar’s main city of Yangon. The country’s military staged a coup on
February 1, and its response to a massive popular uprising against its rule has
been to try to terrorize the entire population into submission. The arrival of
men in camo usually means civilians are about to be threatened, beaten,
abducted, or murdered.
On this occasion the soldiers were there to patrol the
market ahead of a visit by a CNN camera crew, led by the network’s chief
international correspondent, Clarissa Ward. Her team, along with a journalist
from the Southeast Asia Globe who also filed for Al Jazeera and the Washington
Post, was being escorted everywhere by the military on a tightly-controlled
media trip. As they shot footage of the market, plainclothes regime officials
Word of CNN’s visit to Myanmar had already spread across
social media, sparking concerns that the junta would use the trip to present a
false narrative to the world about the situation in the country.
It also divided opinion between those who hoped the trip
would shine more light on the horrific crimes of the new junta, which has now
murdered at least 739 people including dozens of children, and those who saw it
as reckless parachute journalism that––regardless of what ended up being
reported––would help to legitimize the regime.
But the stakes of the debate got much higher after the
journalists arrived at the market. When locals realized they were there, the
area erupted in an impromptu protest as people flashed three-fingered Hunger
Games salutes and banged pots and pans. Others approached the journalists to
talk, eager to make sure the junta’s narrative didn’t dominate their coverage.
“Are you scared to talk to me?” Allegra Mendelson, the
Southeast Asia Globe reporter, asked one woman, a witness who saw the encounter
tells CJR on condition of anonymity. “Yes, they are watching me,” the woman
responded. At this, a man in plainclothes pulled the woman away from the
reporter and said the conversation was over.
As soon as
the journalists left, authorities came back to punish people for their
disobedience, snatching two women and taking them to a military interrogation center.
“We didn’t expect it to happen so fast,” the witness said. “After that,
all the interviewees in the market moved out of their homes for their safety.”
The military later said it had detained a third person.
Another eight people were detained the same day after the
journalists visited a second market. Two young women shouted for help as they
were led away by a man with a gun, who responded by asking if any onlookers
would dare to intervene. The detainees were kept for several nights and
repeatedly asked what they had told CNN, according to someone who narrowly
avoided being arrested at the second market. At least eight of the eleven have
now been released, CNN reported.
Ward later told Jake Tapper on air that the eight people
from the second market had been detained and released after a few days, but
neglected to mention the other three, who appear to still be in
The trip was arranged by controversial Israeli-Canadian
lobbyist Ari Ben-Menashe, who is charging the junta two million dollars to help show the world the “real
situation” in Myanmar, according to a Reuters report. None of the reports CNN
broadcast mentioned this, but they all tried to make the case that Ward’s visit
was in the public interest. “Tell us why it’s so important for you to be
there,” anchor John Berman asked her during one segment.
“We wanted to come here to report on the ground,” Ward said,
“because, simply put John, no other journalists, international journalists,
have been allowed into Myanmar since this coup happened.”
After this aired, observers on Twitter pointed out that
several foreign journalists, including BBC and Al Jazeera contributors, were
already in the country when the military seized power and many local
journalists are covering events.
In another segment Tapper asked Ward why the regime allowed
her into the country. “The military has its side of the story too,” she said,
“and up until now they’ve been largely tight-lipped about what that is.”
But Aye Min Thant, a former Reuters reporter who was based
in Yangon until fleeing the country recently, tells CJR they do not agree with
that rationale. “The Myanmar military produces four newspapers, one of which is
entirely in English, and also controls the airwaves in Myanmar. The military is
not lacking for platforms to tell their side of the story.”
Amid increasing criticism, including from Burmese
journalists and activists, Ward defended her trip on Twitter. “Very striking
that I am being absolutely inundated with positive, heartfelt messages from
people in Myanmar,” she said, “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.”
This is not the first time CNN has waded into ethically
murky territory in Myanmar. In 2016 the network signed a deal with a
broadcaster in the country called SkyNet to help it start a news channel and
website. SkyNet’s owner, Kyaw Win, has long been linked to the military and in
2010 was accused of being heavily involved in land grabbing. The year after CNN
signed the deal, Kyaw Win’s company publically donated $70,000 to the military
at the height of its mass killing campaign against the Rohingya. CNN continued
doing business with SkyNet afterwards.
CNN did not respond to several detailed questions about the
Myanmar trip, its subsequent coverage, and the current status of its
partnership with SkyNet. Ward did not respond to requests for an interview sent
via Twitter and Instagram. April 23, 2021
Carroll is a freelance journalist who was previously based in Myanmar. Tin Htet Paing is a Burmese journalist
working as an assistant news editor for Myanmar Now, an investigative news