Free Rohingya Coalition Call for an Independent Review of BBC World Service Burmese Language Programme
The World Service must not be permitted to amplify, legitimize and put more fuel on the popular flame of anti-Rohingya racism
London and Frankfurt: The role of the Burmese language media and social media in condoning and disseminating racial hatred against the Rohingya in Myanmar is increasingly under the international spot light, particularly in light of the cases relating to mass atrocities at the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court in The Hague (https://www.icj-cij.org/files/case-related/178/178-20200123-PRE-01-00-EN.pdf). Journalists who have reported honestly about the crimes perpetrated by the military have been imprisoned or intimidated. The independent Burmese language media is subject to the pressure and influence of the government and the military (https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-myanmar-journalists-trial-specialrepo/special-report-how-myanmar-punished-two-reporters-for-uncovering-an-atrocity-idUKKCN1LJ165). At this time, it is vital that the free press that reaches the Burmese-speaking public inside and outside the country maintain their impartiality and integrity.
The BBC Burmese service has over decades, including during the period of military rule, been a vital part of the free press, enabling the Burmese-speaking public to access information outside the influence of state censorship and propaganda. In 2013, BBC Burmese, which had operated from outside the country during military rule, opened a bureau inside the country, leaving the organisation open to the same pressure and influence from the Myanmar government as other media outlets. There are multiple and ongoing allegations from both the Burmese diaspora in the UK and those inside the country of racism (and sexism and homophobia) within the service. The allegations relate not simply to the programme outputs, but to patterns of recruitment, promotion and the contracting of anti-Rohingya journalists and staff, and/or staff that have close links with the military (for example, see attached). These Burmese journalists and staff have been able to operate with impunity from the corporation’s internal complaints system, while their more liberal-minded colleagues are side-lined.
The BBC and Ofcom complaints procedures are set up to deal with programme output, and not to deal with situations relating to potentially endemic issues of racism in a country where there are immediate risks of genocide (https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/09/1046442). The internal complaints procedures have, thus far, proved themselves to be inadequate in addressing these concerns and restoring confidence in the professional integrity of the corporation.
It is vital that in order to restore the trust of both the Burmese and British public in the BBC brand, that an independent review of the BBC Burmese service is launched, and that safeguards are put in place to ensure that potential whistle blowers working within the Burmese service are adequately protected and thus able to bring their concerns to light.
Rohingya are a protected group under international law, specifically under the Genocide Convention (See ICJ file linked above). Claims in Myanmar that they are “Bengali”, “migrants” or “foreigners” are understood, almost universally, in an international context to be both false and racist. In 2013, on BBC Radio 4’s “Beyond Belief”, then a BBC Burmese staff member, Mr Soe Win Than, made the following comments in English regarding the Rohingya and the regions in which they have been enclosed and subjected to the policies of apartheid (https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/asa16/7484/2017/en/):
Rohingya is the term that the ethnic group of people call themselves which is not accepted inside Burma. So, there are the foreigners coming to our land, taking away our land. So, there’s a conflict there.
And then, almost the contiguous townships of Rakhine, Burma, originally there were more Rakhine people – ethnic people – but now 95% of the people is Rohingyas/Bengalis there. So, the Rakhine people have the well-founded fear they will be swamped.
Complaints to the BBC against Soe Win Than, who previoisly served in the Burmese Ministry of Information under Burma’s military government, were upheld by the BBC Trust, including that he provided and “inaccurate” depiction of the population and failed to indicate that these racist views were not his own. Nonetheless, he has since been promoted to be the head of the BBC Burmese service. Since that time at least ten thousand Rohingya have been killed and three quarters of a million have fled the military-led campaigns of terror to Bangladesh.
Worryingly, the three days of preliminary hearing at the International Court of Justice in the Hague on genocide were covered by Soe Win Than and one other journalist – Mr Kyaw Zay Ya. In 2012, following the wide-spread violence in Rakhine state which predominantly targeted Rohingya and other Muslim communities, Kyaw Zay Ya (then not a BBC employee) was one of four Burmese in the UK who organised anti-Rohingya protests, including one outside the BBC in London. The event was promoted on facebook under the headline:
“Stop Lying BBC, Rohingyas are Bengali Terrorists…they are invading our country, Burma” (see screenshots 1-4)
Despite BBC Burmese service’s prior knowledge of his racist campaigns against the persecuted Rohingyas, Kyaw Zay Ya has since been recruited by the BBC Burmese Service under Mr Soe Win Than. Worse still, Kyaw Zay Ya was assigned to be the sole BBC Burmese language journalist covering the first two days of the Rohingya genocide trial in the Hague. During the first opening day of the ICJ’s public hearings in the Hague Kyaw Zay Ya chose not to present the voices of the Rohingya activists who were gathered outside the world court in support of the Gambia filing a legal challenge against Myanmar or Burma for the latter’s breach of the Genocide Convention. Despite complaints by members of the Burmese ethnic minority communities who came to offer Rohingyas their support and solidarity, Kyaw Zay Ya has not been disciplined. Instead the BBC Asia Division and Burmese Service Management have whitewashed Kyaw Zay Ya’s racist bias against the victims of genocide.
There are further complaints that have been lodged relating to a photojournalist contracted by the BBC Burmese service inside the country, who has recently posted numerous deeply racist and offensive posts about the Rohingya on facebook (see attachments). The response by the BBC to these complaints was to “speak with” the individual concerned asking him not to post such material. Most worryingly, it did not result them taking a look at their own contracting practices.
It is very important that each of these complaints be not dealt with as individual complaints relating only to BBC Burmese “outputs”. In the context of widespread hate speech, potential genocide and/or other mass atrocities in which the domestic media is understood to play a role, it is vital to consider whether patterns of racial discrimination are inherent in the Burmese service as a whole. All elements and aspects of British engagement with Myanmar are under increasing scrutiny – from business, to NGOs, to Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It is important that the BBC Burmese Service is also held up to scrutiny to ensure it adheres to the same standards of non-discrimination within the rest of the BBC.
As such the Free Rohingya Coalition call for an independent review of BBC Burmese language services including their recruitment, promotion, contracting and internal Human Resources practices.
The coalition’s Rohingya co-founder and coordinator of Media Relations Nay San Lwin says, “on behalf of my fellow refugees and survivors of the genocide in our country, I appeal to both the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the parliamentary authorities, to investigate the BBC World Service Burmese language programme for using one of the world’s most influential media platforms to amplify, legitimize and put more fuel on the popular flame of anti-Rohingya racism in Burma and among the Burmese diaspora.”
Nay San Lwin | [email protected] | +49 176 62139138