Media professionals petition for transparency around CNN’s negotiated access into Myanmar

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CNN Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward’s reporting trip to Myanmar on March 31, 2021 has produced much upheaval among Burmese and other Asian journalists, as well as media professionals of the region.

Ward travelled to the country that has been under illegitimate military rule since the coup at the beginning of February to report on the situation as “the first international journalist who is able to enter the country”, as she describes on CNN.

Israeli-Canadian lobbyist Ari Ben-Menashe, who has been hired by the junta, told Reuters he had arranged the CNN visit and that the team would be free to report what they want. 

Based on her report, we know now that: 

  • Ward didn’t get the freedom to report. Instead she and her team were escorted 24/7 by the military 
  • They had to stay in a completely walled off military compound instead of a hotel, where they couldn’t leave without permission
  • They travelled in a convoy of six trucks carrying soldiers and that their every move was followed 
  • Ward has put her civilian interviewees in direct danger — 11 of them were arrested (at least eight have now been released)
  • Ward didn’t present any new stories apart from what has already been reported in the two months before her arrival

This is “parachute journalism”, where mostly white Western journalists are sent to an area to report on a story in which the reporter has little direct knowledge or experience. These gaps and tight deadlines often result in inaccurate or distorted news reports told in a binary manner especially during breaking news situations. 

This form of reporting is part of a widespread idea in Western journalism that something isn’t true until a white Western journalist reports on it. A culture of whiteness and systemic racism lies underneath these beliefs. 

As media professionals, we believe that:

  • There is no need to fly in celebrity foreign journalists, especially on negotiated access. There is great, quality independent journalism happening in Myanmar by newsrooms like Frontier Myanmar, Myanmar Now, and individual local journalists like Pulitzer Prize-winning Aye Min Thant and Kyaw Hsan Hlaing 
  • By accepting access from the military, CNN is engaging with the military as a governing power in Myanmar — an illegitimate authority that has been condemned and shunned by governments around the world
  • Ward’s reporting has put the safety of the Burmese people at unnecessary risk
  • Ward was dishonest by saying “no international media” was able to get into the country. In doing so, she’s dismissed the important work of local and international journalists who have been risking their safety since the first day of the coup (As for foreign journalists, on February 26, Japanese freelance reporter Yuki Kitazumi was the first known foreign journalist to be arrested. Polish photographer Robert Bociaga was arrested on March 11.)
  • It is unethical that CNN sought to gain access to Myanmar through the junta’s lobbyist Ari Ben-Menashe, who has made derogatory comments about journalism in the country
  • The closing remark of the CNN anchor that they’re “lucky” to have Ward in Yangon and that “the world is lucky to have you there so we get a window as to what is happening” demonstrates the blind spots in CNN newsrooms

In the spirit of journalism, we ask that Ward and CNN be transparent about “all of the complications” that their visit entailed:

  1. Is Ben-Menashe's claim that he negotiated the access accurate?
  2. If so, did he approach CNN, or was it the other way around?
  3. What exactly was negotiated as part of the trip?
  4. When did the discussions take place?
  5. Was a financial transaction involved?

Written by Sanne Breimer and Alan Soon.