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The BBC’s Burmese-language news service has severed ties with Burma’s MNTV, with the former citing “interference” from the state broadcaster, saying it had constituted “a serious breach of trust with our audiences.”
Since April 2014, BBC Burmese had aired a Burmese-language bulletin on MNTV that reached an audience of more than 3.5 million people.
“Any interference in our programmes by partner stations represents a serious breach of trust with our audiences, which the BBC cannot allow. We have experienced interference in our news bulletins since March and reminded MNTV that this breached their broadcasting agreement,” the BBC’s director of World Service Group, Francesca Unsworth, was quoted as saying.
“Since this interference continued, the BBC had no alternative but to end the partnership with immediate effect. We regret any disruption to our loyal audiences in Myanmar and we remind them that they can continue to access BBC Burmese on bbcburmese.com, on the BBC Burmese Facebook page, on the BBC Burmese YouTube channel and we are available on Shortwave.”
Though Unsworth’s statement did not specify the nature of the interference alleged, the rupture in the relationship appears to have stemmed from the BBC Burmese news service’s coverage of Arakan State, where conflict between the military and Muslim Rohingya militants flared anew last month.
“A statement issued by the Union government said that assisting the ARSA [Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army] extremist terrorist group, conducting activities that support the extremist terrorists, [or] writings in the media that support the terrorists, will be taken action against under the Counter-Terrorism Law,” read a statement from MNTV.
“BBC Burmese sent news that included the usage of terminology prohibited by the Union government. Paying respect to the instructions of the government, MNTV informed its audiences that MNTV suspended broadcasting of BBC Burmese programming since 30-31 August,” it added.
Myint Kyaw, a member of the Myanmar Press Council, told DVB that the council was not aware of the details of the dispute between the two sides, beyond each’s publicly issued statements.
AFP reported on Monday that the BBC Burmese editorial team’s use of the word “Rohingya” was one point of contention that led to the broadcasting partnership’s demise.
The government has offered a series of mixed messages on what it deems appropriate terminology for news outlets covering the conflict in Arakan State. Its military-backed predecessor, the Union Solidarity and Development Party-led administration, frequently referred to the self-identifying Rohingya Muslims of Arakan State as “Bengalis,” a term meant to imply that they are illegal interlopers from neighbouring Bangladesh.
State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi appeared to seek a middle ground on the controversial issue of nomenclature in May 2016, when at a press conference in Naypyidaw with then-US Secretary of State John Kerry she described both “Bengali” and “Rohingya” as “incendiary” and “emotive terms” that should be avoided.
Since the 25 August attacks by ARSA militants, however, multiple reports in state media have referred to Arakan State’s “Bengali” population.
A 28 August report in the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar added to the confusion over what would and would not be tolerated when it comes to lexicon, issuing a perplexing “Warning In Relation With Extremist Terrorists” that cautioned the media and the public at large against supporting ARSA or terrorism more broadly.
The state mouthpiece went on to scold “some news media” for using the term “insurgents” instead of following the government line in referring to ARSA as “extremist terrorists.”
It is not clear why the word “insurgents” has become taboo. The term was used previously in state media to describe Muslim militants in Arakan State, including in a front-page headline of the 22 July edition of the Global New Light of Myanmar, and as recently as a 26 August editorial in the English-language daily, and a 27 August report.
Though if the civilian government has seemed at times conflicted over how to handle its own terminology, Burma’s other major political power centre, the military, has had no such qualms.
In an English translation intended to summarise a speech from the country’s commander-in-chief on the state of affairs in Arakan State, Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing offered a full-throated defence of use of the word “Bengali” and repeatedly bookended its use with the words “extremist” and “terrorists.”
Further complicating matters in recent days has been the question of who speaks for whom when it comes to official government statements.
On 29 August, the Facebook page of the State Counsellor Office Information Committee changed its name, rebranding as simply the “Information Committee.”
Speaking to The Voice Daily, State Counsellor’s Office official Zaw Htay explained the reasoning behind the name change as such: “I want to let people know that this page represents the government rather than an individual. The page is relevant to the Tatmadaw [Burma’s armed forces], Myanmar Police Force, Foreign Affairs and Border Affairs ministries. … The state counsellor is not the only one who disseminates information.”