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Over the past week there has been a huge amount of controversy in the journalism community over a report by CNN and their ‘Chief International Correspondent’ Clarissa Ward.
Ward and her team flew to Myanmar at the invitation of the military junta to report on the situation on the ground. It is the same military junta that has used live ammunition and repressive tactics on their own population since it took power in a February 1 coup. The junta has killed over 500 of their own people in a bid to keep power.
In order to get to Myanmar, which has effectively closed its borders due to international sanctions and pressure, Ward and CNN accepted the invitation of a public relations team hired by the junta to better their image in the eyes of the world. They advertised this on the channel as having “exclusive access” with Ward going onto claim that she was the only international correspondent reporting ‘on the ground.’
Of course once they reached Myanmar, Ward and her team were not given free access to the country. Rather they were shepherded around by the junta’s minders including being shown a burned down factory that the junta said was the result of protester violence.
That is unlikely as according to Myanmar reporters that have actually been reporting ‘on the ground,’ the factory had been fine the night before Ward’s arrival and was burned down overnight. Myanmar protesters have not gone out at night for weeks because the junta has sent out roving bands of armed men with shoot-to-kill orders during the night.
Ward and her team also caused the arrest of 11 Myanmar nationals by either approaching them on the street, according to eyewitnesses, or were approached by them. The 11 people that they talked to are now in custody of the government and could face torture or execution.
Since the report aired and the criticisms have mounted, Ward and the CNN team have defended their actions and said the only people criticizing the piece were old white men. The whole scenario has raised several questions about ethical journalism and whether or not CNN was following best practices.
Question 1: What did CNN accomplish by going?
What did we learn from the CNN report that we have not seen reported in greater detail from elsewhere and from people that know the country? Nothing. The report revealed nothing and had nothing that was novel or profound except from a few soundbites from the junta’s spokesperson.
If the cost of putting locals on the ground in danger was to get a few junta soundbites, it is certainly not worth it – not from a journalism perspective and not from a decency perspective.
Question 2: The only international reporting on the ground?
Despite claims by Ward and the team that they were the only international correspondents being given access to the country, Myanmar journalists working on the ground have been risking their lives and reporting courageously since the coup on February 1. Their stories have made the front page of newspapers and newswires around the world including major publications in the United States and the European Union.
Ward’s claims that her reporting was necessary is the worst kind of parachute journalism where a white/western correspondent with cursory knowledge of the local situation is parachuted in to a situation so that they can appear on the byline or on camera. What’s worse is that her presenter for the segment said that the world was lucky to have Ward reporting from the ground, there is just no excusing that.
Ward is following in the grand tradition of CNN’s previous chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour in having to insert one’s visage into every situation, pretend to be an expert, while discounting or dismissing the important work done by local journalist.
Question 3: Only criticisms from old white men?
Criticism of Ward’s reporting cannot be easily dismissed as mere criticisms of old jaded white men. This tweet by Ward seems a little tone deaf.
Very striking that I am being absolutely inundated with positive, heartfelt messages from people in Myanmar, while a handful of white male academics/ commentators (none of them in the country) write endless screeds about how offensive my trip is to the people of Myanmar 🤔— Clarissa Ward (@clarissaward) April 6, 2021
There are many local concerns over the problems that Ward’s presence brings. Here are some:
This military-controlled "reporting" trip managed to tell us nothing new, while still getting 11 people arrested. She also justified it by saying no "international media" has been allowed in, dismissing the work of all of us who have been risking our safety since day one. https://t.co/EGUqQceHh7— Aye Min Thant (@the_ayeminthant) April 5, 2021
Problems with @clarissaward reports on Burma:— Wai Hnin Pwint Thon (@MissWHPT) April 6, 2021
– 11 people arrested post-interview & @CNN seems to use this as a badge of honour
– Reporting as if she's the first int'l media but others do it with more risk incl. many local journalists
– Protonising tone as if we have no voice. https://t.co/Ydt7p7AN7U
Or this entire thread by Thin Lei Win who appeared in our podcast to talk about Myanmar:
Many people more eloquent than me have responded to this tweet, but since I’m a journalist myself + Burmese, female & NOT white, I feel I should point out to Clarissa why some of us have an issue with her trip & respond to this tone-deaf tweet. (THREAD) #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar https://t.co/hZZ13vmnH5— Thin (@thinink) April 6, 2021