BBC Burma pulls Myanmar TV deal over Rohingya 'censorship'

Myanmar's Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi smiles after a meeting with Norway's Foreign Minister Borge Brende (not in picture) at Myanmar's Foreign Ministry in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, on July 6, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

YANGON (AFP) - The BBC's Burmese language service on Monday (Sept 4) said it was pulling a broadcasting deal with a popular Myanmar television channel citing "censorship" as the two partners clashed over coverage of the Muslim Rohingya minority.

The announcement is the latest blow to struggling press freedoms in the country and a remarkable turnaround for a news organisation that famously kept Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi up to date during her long years of house arrest under junta rule.

Since April 2014, BBC Burmese broadcast a daily news programme on MNTV with 3.7 million daily viewers.

On Monday the BBC said it was ending the deal after MNTV pulled multiple programmes since March this year.

"The BBC cannot accept interference or censorship of BBC programs by joint-venture TV broadcasters as that violates the trust between the BBC and its audience," a report on the BBC's Burmese website said. The BBC statement did not detail what content was censored.

But in a statement MNTV, a joint venture between private and state media, said it began pulling reports to comply with government orders over "restricted" words.

"The BBC Burmese program sent news that included wordings that are restricted by the state government," the statement said.

A station official said the problematic word was "Rohingya".

"That's why we cannot broadcast their service," the employee said, asking not to be named.

The Rohingya are a stateless Muslim minority in Myanmar's western Rakhine who face severe state-sanctioned persecution and have fled in droves in recent years.

Most international media call them Rohingya because the community has long self-identified that way. But Myanmar's government - and most local media - call them Bengalis, portraying them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh despite many living in the country for generations.

Last week Ms Suu Kyi's government called on media to only refer to militants as "extremist terrorists".

While local media have largely complied, the order was reminiscent of the years under the junta when the press was ordered what to write.

Hopes had been high that the new government of democracy icon Suu Kyi would usher in an era of free speech when they took power last year after half a century of military rule.

Ms Suu Kyi was confined for years to a lakeside Yangon house under the junta but used to listen to the World Service and its Burmese language offshoot on her radio.

Yet since coming to power in landslide elections, her civilian-led government has frequently clashed with the media over their coverage.

Defamation prosecutions have also soared, increasingly targeting social media satirists, activists and journalists.

A major bone of contention with foreign media is coverage of Rakhine state, which has been under an army crackdown since a small group of Rohingya militants attacked police border posts last October.

Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled into Bangladesh while smaller numbers of Buddhist refugees have headed in the opposite direction.

The UN believes the military's response to the militant attacks in Rakhine may amount to ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.

Ms Suu Kyi's government have denied reports of atrocities, refusing visas to UN officials charged with investigating the allegations. They have frequently condemned international media coverage and blocked press access to much of the war-torn region.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.