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Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi has turned to state-run media inherited from the former junta in an overhaul of her PR approach, after warnings her agenda is being swamped by crises and amid fears among rights groups of eroding free speech.
The Nobel laureate came to power last year amid a transition from full military rule that has propelled her from political prisoner to the elected leader.
But where she once courted the foreign press in her campaign against the generals and their state-run mouthpieces, she now keeps independent media at arm’s length. Western diplomats and her own advisers have warned she has failed to control her administration’s narrative.
In a talk with villagers in central Burma on Monday, transmitted on state broadcaster Myanmar Radio and Television (MRTV), she exhorted the public to follow official statements on the government’s activities.
“I would like to say: read the newspapers and listen to the news on MRTV released by the government,” she said, referring specifically to official reports about the government’s response to the crisis in western Arakan State, also known as Rakhine.
Rohingya Muslim militants killed nine police in attacks there in October, sparking a brutal military response that the United Nations says may have included crimes against humanity.
Official outlets, including a social media account run out of Suu Kyi’s office, published running denials during the conflict, quickly dismissing reports in independent media of alleged government atrocities as “fake news” and “fake rape”.
Suu Kyi has resisted calls, including from the United States, to allow U.N. human rights investigators into the country.
“You will always hear [on official broadcasts] what the government is doing for peace and stability in Rakhine,” she said on Monday.
“We take a lot of care as the whole world is interested in this.”
A so-called communications unit within Suu Kyi’s office has also since late June been putting out regular releases celebrating official acts.
One missive said “hard work, patience and tough decisions” were going into managing the economy, and blamed a slowdown in growth and foreign investment since Suu Kyi took office on past governments.
Government newspapers that used to denounce then opposition leader Suu Kyi now run her picture on their front pages nearly every day.
Myint Kyaw, a member of the Myanmar Press Council, said Suu Kyi seems to favour state-run media, which he described as “still at the propaganda stage”.
Suu Kyi has not given interviews to local media and breezes past reporters attempting to pitch questions, including on a visit to a village in central Myanmar that Reuters joined on Monday, the second recent press tour arranged by her officials.
‘Avoiding the media’
Foreign media were invited to tour the conflict area in Arakan last month, but were closely watched by security forces and only allocated time to visit one village where locals alleged rights abuses.
On Monday, members of Suu Kyi’s security detail – dressed in dark suits and sunglasses – physically prevented reporters from asking questions.
Suu Kyi did not respond when asked for comment by a Reuters reporter. Suu Kyi’s spokesman, Zaw Htay, said in a message on Tuesday he was unavailable to comment.
Press freedom advocates fear that gains in freedom of speech in Burma are being eroded, with at least five media workers detained in recent weeks.
Bidhayak Das, an Indian journalist and academic who has trained reporters in Burma, said Suu Kyi was in danger of jeopardising her support among the fast-growing independent media that has emerged since censorship was lifted in 2012.
“Instead of building on it by having regular interface with media and clarifying doubts about her government’s position or her opinions on issues ranging from the peace process to the Rakhine communal strife to the problems of the faltering economy, she has chosen to avoid the media.”