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Myanmar appoints anti-Rohingya media critic as deputy information minister

Myanmar’s new deputy information minister Aung Hla Tun. Photo: Facebook

By Jacob Goldberg
January 17, 2018

Veteran journalist and media critic Aung Hla Tun was appointed as Myanmar’s deputy minister for information on Monday. The Rakhine State native has built a reputation recently as a guardian of Myanmar’s public image, but his selective adherence to media ethics has been a source of anxiety among critics of the country’s military.

Aung Hla Tun worked as a reporter and editor for the UK-based Reuters news agency until 2015, when he took up the post of vice-chair of the Myanmar Press Council – a body that became independent from the Ministry of Information in 2013, ostensibly in order to advocate more effectively for journalistic freedom.

As vice-chair, Aung Hla Tun made it his mission to defend Myanmar’s government and military from accusations of abuses by foreign media outlets.

“The greatest responsibility of media today in Myanmar is safeguarding our national image, which has been badly tarnished by some unethical international media reports,” he said at the Forum on Myanmar’s Democratic Transition in August. “The international media often tends to sensationalize their reports and practice agenda-setting when covering sensitive issues for various reasons.”

His dogged protectiveness of the government’s reputation appears to have made him a fitting candidate for the second-highest position in a ministry that works to encourage local media to conform to the official government line.

However, Aung Hla Tun’s pro-government activism has strayed beyond just speaking up in support of government policies. On a few infamous occasions, he has failed to act as a friend to journalists.

In late November, he criticized AP reporter Esther Htusan for misquoting State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in an article titled “Suu Kyi blames world conflicts partly on illegal immigration.” After a transcript of the state counsellor’s speech was later released, Htusan corrected the article and changed the headline to reflect Suu Kyi’s actual statement.

Even after the correction, Aung Hla Tun said Htusan was guilty of a “purposeful ‘misinterpretation’ with an ulterior motive to hurt [Aung San Suu Kyi’s] image and that of our country among the international [community].”

Under Aung Hla Tun’s leadership, the Myanmar Press Council failed to release a statement in support of three journalists and their driver who were arrested for allegedly importing and flying drone near the parliament compound in Naypyidaw. One of the journalists – Aung Naing Soe – was known for his reporting on the plight of Muslims, including the Rohingya, during Myanmar’s political transition. The council also refused to help mediate Aung Naing Soe’s case with the government, though that is its primary mandate.

While the council did release a statement in support of the two Reuters reporters who were arrested last month for investigating a military massacre of Rohingya men in northern Rakhine State, its members were publicly criticized for taking a week to do so.

Aside from journalists, fears about Aung Hla Tun’s appointment are most acutely felt by those who advocate for the rights of the Rohingya, whose persecution at the hands of the Myanmar government and military the new deputy minister has sought to suppress.

Rohingya activist Nay San Lwin, told Coconuts Yangon: “Just before his appointment, [Aung Hla Tun] claimed that international news agencies don’t pay reporters who use the term ‘Bengali’ (a pejorative word used against the Rohingya). This is a good example of him misguiding journalists in Myanmar.”

He went on: “Using the term ‘Rohingya’ is a matter of respecting human rights. As he is seriously violating human rights [by suppressing the use of the term], the future of state media will be worse than before. He will promote racism officially for sure.”

Burma Human Rights Network director Kyaw Win said: “The appointment of Aung Hla Tun as deputy information minister proves that Burma’s skin-deep political reform is taking another U-turn. His [tacit] support for the arrest of the two Reuters journalists, despite having worked for Reuters himself, proves that this appointment is a serious threat to media freedom in Burma.

“The NLD government that appointed Aung Hla Tun is becoming more intolerant of freedom of speech and media freedom. It is sad to see that they are betraying the principle of democracy they once stood for.”

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