Journalists are not protagonists

After the coup in Burma 1 February, I spent some time frantically covering the situation of the ethnic armed groups along the Thai-Burma border. Returning from busy reporting days, there comes a calm morning with the aroma of coffee at home, feeling full freedom of distancing oneself from lousy tale-telling domestic and international media headlines.

Last four months of Burmese political situation presented a challenge to separate facts from rumour. Stories without trusted references and quotes became works of journalism and spread as news pieces.

“I have never met any journalists and expressed my political stance. They made up everything and put words in my mouth,” says Abel Tweed, the chairman of the Karenni National Progressive Party.

Particularly, stories on inaccessible the Ethnic Armed Organisations went too far until fiction writing with quotes like ‘according to someone’.

The term ‘someone’ can be seen as a ghost that refers to the imagination, a fictious source, and the desire of a journalist to take a shortcut. In other words, journalists using ‘according to someone’ without clear reference is proof that they are not capable of covering the story. That is the unnamed source never used by a journalist who reported a story on the ground.

Needless to say, South Korean media has been coping and piecing together parts of international news, not only the news but also pictures and videos. None of them ever did any ground reporting. Let’s share one example: the story by KBS on April 4.

The feature news had a dateline of the Thai-Burma border with the title ‘An interview with Saw Paw Doh, the commander of Karen National Liberation Army’.

The title was already a joke. In fact, the commander of the KNLA is General Jonny, and Col Saw Paw Doh is only operation commander of the 7th Brigade of KNLA which led by Brig Gen. Jaw Phyu. Even the kids of the area know this basic fact. That fact was distorted by the correspondent, by intention or ignorance, but the consequence of deceiving only affects civil society's understanding of the issue.

Much bigger problem lies in not referencing a single video source of the story with the correspondent featuring it as if it was a KBS exclusive. This is immoral as well as illegal practice. Clearly mention the source of the film is common knowledge in the world of journalism. That is why AFP and the Hankyoreh Daily of Korea referenced the image source in their stories which was exactly the same film used by the KBS without attribution.

This example is not about the only correspondent’s questionable practice but rather points to the larger systematical problems of KBS. Too often, the media plays words like ‘For the first time’, ‘For the best’ and it has become an irresistible habit of media and correspondents which eventually reached an immoral illegal work of journalism like we saw in KBS reporting on Burmese issue.

Public broadcasters like KBS shouldn’t do this, going against civil society standards. KBS is only an example but this kind of happenings are deep-seated habits of Korean media when it comes to reporting on war and conflict. It is mainly because there is no monitoring mechanism in war and conflict zones, unlike urban settings. Therefore, the event was an action movie of correspondents who couldn’t resist the temptation of making up stories from extraordinary situations.

The core quality of on the spot reporting is honesty. Especially, reporting on war and conflict has no filtering mechanism for keeping these basic values  thus coming along with a fatalistic impact on civil society and policy makers. This is why we do not accept opinion or personal views of war correspondents.

Because reporting war affects civilians caught in the middle. This context does make a warning to not cover war or conflict with urban setting angle or desire, which in other words the war reporting is a scary category of journalism.

War correspondent should not show up as a protagonist, or a propagandist, this sould be the core value of a frontline journalist. Hope these words pass down and spread among all the journalists who cover Burma today. 

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