Monday, April 27, 2009

When Good News Goes Bad

The Irrawaddy News

“No news is good news.” For most, this means that a day without incident is a good day, indeed. But for journalists, it tends to mean that truly newsworthy stories are rarely “good news”: death, disease, disaster and downfall will always trump feel-good tales of triumph on the front page.

Journalists are often accused of focusing on the negative and ignoring the positive. But when you are trying to shed light on a situation, you are bound to cast some shadows. This is especially true in the case of Burma, a country run by benighted generals who prefer to keep their people in the dark.

At a media workshop I attended recently, a fellow journalist asked me if there was any good news to report about Burma’s recovery from Cyclone Nargis one year after the disaster claimed nearly 140,000 lives and severely affected 2.4 million people.

In a way, the best news is that the bad news is still coming out of Burma, despite the junta’s efforts to suppress reporting of the realities on the ground. The international and exiled Burmese media have both played an important role in revealing how far from normal the situation in the Irrawaddy delta remains.

A year ago, Cyclone Nargis dominated international headlines and news networks for nearly a month. Then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Burma, and the junta agreed to allow aid workers into the country to assist people in some of the worst-hit areas. End of story, at least as far as many people were concerned.

But for The Irrawaddy and some other news outlets, this was just the beginning of the story. For the past year, we have been watching developments in the delta closely and listening to the testimony of ordinary people as well as the pronouncements of the junta and their partners in the recovery efforts.

What we have learned is not to take the official version of developments at face value, even when it is coming from respected international aid agencies. We have found that many relief workers who offer an optimistic assessment in public will often privately confide that the situation in the delta is a mess, and is likely to remain one as long as the regime continues to set the priorities.

The other good news coming out of Burma is that, despite all the constraints imposed upon them, many ordinary Burmese continue to do everything in their power to help heal the delta. We have learned that local private relief groups, formed by monks, students, celebrities, medical groups, businessmen, charitable organizations and others are still very active in the relief effort, laying the groundwork not only for renewal in the delta, but also cultivating hope for the country’s prospects of achieving justice, pluralism and, ultimately, democracy.

But even this good news has its dark side. The junta, ever fearful of any emerging alternative to their brutal rule, has initiated a crackdown on independent aid workers. To date, twenty-one volunteers have been arrested and detained in connection with their relief work in the Irrawaddy delta. Meanwhile, Burma’s most famous satirist, Zarganar, is said to be suffering from jaundice and hypertension in Myitkyina Prison, where he is serving a 35-year prison term for his relief role.

The survival of these private efforts now depends on their ability to continue operating under the radar. This means that many are reluctant to speak to us about their work, because it would attract unwelcome attention from the military authorities.

“If the media focuses on our efforts today, tomorrow the authorities will shut us down,” said one aid worker.

For Burma’s generals, it seems, any real news is bad news.

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