News

June 12, 2018

Myanmar bans Radio Free Asia for using the term “Rohingyas”

Myanmar journalists participate in a demonstration in support of press freedom in 2014. The situation has declined significantly since then, obstructing the democratic process (photo: Ye Aung Thu / AFP).
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the Myanmar government’s latest interference in the work of journalists, a ban on local broadcasting by US government-funded Radio Free Asia (RFA) for rightly using the term “Rohingyas” to refer to members of the persecuted Muslim community in Rakhine state, in the west of the country. The ban is officially imposed today, six months to the day after the arrest of two Reuters journalists who had been investigating a massacre of Rohingya civilians.

The last broadcast of an RFA-produced programme in Myanmar was yesterday evening. It was carried by MRTV, a TV channel owned by Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), which was ordered by the authorities to stop transmitting RFA programmes if they continued to use the word “Rohingyas.”


“Radio Free Asia will not compromise its code of journalistic ethics, which prohibits the use of slurs against ethnic minority groups,” RFA president Libby Liu said.


“We would like to express our solidarity with the RFA journalists who have been working constantly in the field to provide the Myanmar public with freely and impartially reported news and information,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.


“It is the prerogative of totalitarian regimes to want to impose their ‘newspeak’ by banning the media from using certain terms – all the more so when the rest of the world uses the term. A prohibition on the word ‘Rohingya’ is indicative of a desire to rewrite history and reality. In a reminder of the former military government’s worst era, this latest press freedom violation has further compromised the transition to democracy begun by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party.”


Orwellian order


The authorities first announced their Orwellian ban on the word “Rohingyas” in June 2016, two months after the installation of a government headed by Suu Kyi, who was long seen as the embodiment of democratic hopes in Myanmar. The word was to be replaced by the improbable phrase “people who believe in Islam in Rakhine state,” the authorities said.


Since then, Myanmar media that want to continue publishing or broadcasting have had to comply with the directive. Those that are critical of the government’s policies in Rakhine state, such as the Myanmar Times, use the neutral term “Muslims.”


But media that support the government use the discriminatory term “Bengalis,” implying that the Rohingyas are just immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh in order to legitimize the ethnic cleansing to which they have been subjected since August 2017. In reality, the Rohingya presence in Rakhine state dates back centuries.


The BBC’s Burmese language service announced on 4 September 2017 that its daily programmes would no longer be broadcast by its local partner, MNTV, because MNTV was being pressured by the authorities over the use of the term “Rohingya.”


The ban on using the word “Rohingya” is indicative of the scale of the taboo that this issue represents for Myanmar’s authorities. Six months ago, just as Reuters was preparing to publish a report about a massacre of Rohingya civilians in the village of Inn Din, two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were arrested on a charge of possessing official secrets after being lured to a meeting with a police officer and being handed some documents.


Myanmar fell six places in RSF's 2018 World Press Freedom Index and is now ranked 137th out of 180 countries.