Senior officials from the British Broadcasting Corporation’s World Service last week met government officials and private broadcasters to push for the opportunity to operate legally inside Myanmar.
Following a recent invitation from the government, the BBC delegation also proposed providing editorial and production training to journalists and editors at state media outlets and some private organisations, including Forever Group and Sky Net.
“The first thing that we want to do is offer a substantial training package and to establish a project office,” BBC World Service director Peter Horrocks told The Myanmar Times on September 8.
“We would hope to be able to develop from that a regular presence here for our journalists … but we also want to work closely with the media sector in Burma to help it to reform, to improve its standards,” Mr Horrocks said.
“That ability to do the journalism from here is really important and the ability for people here to be able to see and hear our journalism is really important. We would like all of our services in English, both television and radio, but also our Burmese language radio service to be on air as well and we’ll be talking to people about the possibility of that, not least because it would be good for the people inside the country to see and hear the journalism and be able to judge it for themselves.”
Despite the strict internal censorship at state media outlets, Mr Horrocks said the BBC felt “the time is right” to start training government journalists.
“I think it’s partly the opportunity is there, we’re being invited, but it’s also something the BBC thinks about carefully, in terms of whether it’s appropriate to be working with journalistic organisations that haven’t previously been free and independent.,” he said.
“The key test for us will be can we deliver our journalism training in a way that’s true to the BBC’s standards. So we’re insisting that we provide the full range of journalism training, not just the technical production training but also editorial training, ethical training, and we’ll want to make sure we can deliver that full package, including values that maybe some years ago wouldn’t have been welcomed in this country.”
The broadcaster is already training independent journalists in Myanmar through its Media Action program and remains committed to supporting the private sector, Mr Horrocks said.
“I think the important thing is to provide training at various different levels. It’s also important that we’re providing training to the media scene as a whole; it’s not just about training that we’ll offer to the government or the government’s agencies.
“We want to work with private broadcasters as well as the state broadcasters. And we want to make sure that we’re supporting and training frontline journalists in production skills but most importantly in editorial values.”
He said it is more important than ever journalists have access to training, particularly on ethics, now pre-publication censorship has been abolished.
“It’s important for journalists in any country where the media suddenly becomes much more free to realise that that doesn’t mean there are no rules. Journalism needs to be responsible … I think there are still further things that need to happen for [Myanmar’s media sector] to meet true international standards but there clearly have been improvements.”
The BBC’s Burmese-language service was routinely pilloried by the military regime for its perceived bias but more recently has come under fire from Myanmar who accuse its journalists of misreporting the recent conflict in Rakhine State.
Specifically, BBC journalists were accused of skewing their coverage in favour of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority referred to as Bengalis inside Myanmar.
Mr Horrocks said the BBC was open to criticism and was “always asking itself questions about its reporting”.
“I know that the criticism from within Myanmar has been about whether the reporting from the BBC has taken the side too much of the Muslim population. Interestingly, around the world, we’ve had a lot of criticism that we have not reported the story sufficiently and we haven’t given enough of a perspective on the violence against Muslims,” he said.
“It’s not unusual in situations of community, sectarian violence for people to have strong views on either side and for criticism to follow. Our job is not to take sides, [it is] to tell all sides of the story, even if that sometimes makes some people uncomfortable because they’re hearing views that they may not agree with.
“We’ll always have ears that are open to criticism and if there are specific mistakes we’ve made or things that we haven’t reported fairly we’ll always look into those and if there are things that the government or other people want to raise with me while I’m in the country then I’d be happy to look into those.”
Allowing the BBC to operate inside Myanmar would help to improve the broadcaster’s coverage of the country, he said.
“Obviously it’s hard to report accurately on things when you’re reporting from further away. So while I wouldn’t accept there has been bias, clearly accuracy can be improved when you’re close to a story.
“The story in Myanmar is a very important global story. We’ve been able to cover it a little more easily in the past year or so with reporters coming in on an occasional basis but we want to be able to report from here more regularly.”
The broadcaster was also involved in another recent controversy after it emerged that it was employing Ronald Aung Naing, a former All Burma Students’ Democratic Front member accused of orchestrating a brutal massacre in the organisation’s Northern Burma branch in 1992.
He worked for BBC Media Action until late May, when he was fired for his links to the massacre, in which 15 members of the group were executed for allegedly being Military Intelligence spies and another 19 died during interrogation.
In a letter to London-based Oak Foundation dated June 1, BBC Media Action director Caroline Nursey said Ronald Aung Naing had been employed as a translator on the broadcaster’s Burma Horizon project.
She said that when the BBC had learned of his links to the ABSDF on May 28 “we made the decision that we should end our association with Ronald Aung Naing”, who she said had previously worked for “other international organisations”.
Noting that Ronald Aung Naing “has not denied any wrongdoing”, Ms Nursey said the BBC “view this situation very seriously”.
Mr Horrocks said he felt the BBC had handled the issue “effectively” and that it wouldn’t harm the organisation’s reputation in Myanmar.
“It’s the sort of thing that can happen in the kinds of conflicts and pressures in such a tense political situation as there has been in Burma and Thailand but I think that the controversy about those circumstances made it inappropriate for that individual to be working for the BBC and that’s why we are no longer employing that individual,” he said.
He said he had “made my teams aware of” the importance of conducting stricter background checks on prospective employees.
“It’s very difficult, especially when you can’t necessarily completely check the circumstances, when there are controversies like this but I think being aware of the way something may be seen can be important, as well as the substance of it. … I think that we dealt with it effectively.”