RANGOON, Burma—U.S. taxpayer money is funding a media organization in Burma that rights campaigners say has sided with racists against the Rohingya, even as the State Department withdraws military aid and considers sanctions in response to army-led atrocities against the minority.
The Irrawaddy, which receives money as part of U.S. efforts to promote independent media in the country, has parroted Burmese government propaganda, former journalists there and Rohingya advocates told The Daily Beast.
In September the website, which takes its name from country’s most important river, falsely claimed a former U.S. ambassador to Rangoon had warned of a “Muslim State” in Burma if Rohingya were granted rights.
Last year the National Endowment for Democracy, which is funded by Congress, gave the publication $150,000. It has made similar donations of up to $175,000 a year since at least 2005, and has been funding the organization to some extent for over 20 years.
Three of The Irrawaddy’s journalists have resigned since September over its coverage of the Rohingya tragedy.
More than 600,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since the military began systematically massacring and raping villagers in a small corner of western Rakhine state in late August.
As debate simmers internationally about whether the attacks amount to genocide, most Burmese media have either ignored reports of atrocities or joined in with a propaganda campaign aimed at branding the Rohingya terrorists, denying the legitimacy of their ethnic name, and reinforcing the false belief that they are illegal immigrants.
Until recently The Irrawaddy was among the few outlets in the country that defied this narrative. But as hatred of the Rohingya inside Burma has reached new highs, its position on the issue has become increasingly hard-line. The publication’s coverage has, to be fair, been more balanced than that of most Burmese media. Then again that is a very low bar to clear.
A recent decision to use the term “self-identifying Rohingya” for most references to members of the group drew fierce criticism from rights campaigners, who say it panders to extremists who would like to see the group’s identity erased entirely.
“Decades of hard work building the reputation of The Irrawaddy has been undermined by the editor in chief deciding to abandon journalistic independence and come down on the side of racists saying the Rohingya don’t belong in Burma,” said Mark Farmaner, director of the rights group Burma Campaign U.K.
The site’s Burmese edition has for years shunned the term Rohingya and instead used “Bengalis,” the name favored by the military and used by most in Burma to suggest they are interlopers.
Defending the policy, editor in chief Aung Zaw told The Daily Beast: “We have to be extremely careful to present different voices… We also use ‘Rohingya people,’ ‘Rohingya population.’ It’s not just ‘self-identifying,’ so there is no discriminatory editorial policy.”
He added: “They will be called Bengali anyway… that’s why I think the Burmese language editor has chosen to use Bengali.”
The publication appears to have ditched its use of the “self-identifying” qualifier since being contacted by The Daily Beast.
The Irrawaddy has also joined in with anti-Rohingya jeering. After thousands of Rohingya fleeing persecution were stranded at sea by human traffickers in 2015, the website published a cartoon last year depicting a darker-skinned man wearing a sign reading “Boat People.”
The man is seen cutting in line ahead of Burma’s other ethnic minorities, suggesting Rohingya are demanding preferential treatment.
During a video panel discussion published last month on The Irrawaddy’s website, the publication’s English-language editor falsely claimed the former U.S. Ambassador to Rangoon, Derek Mitchell, had warned the Rohingya “would demand territory—a Rohingya State or Muslim State” if their ethnic name were officially recognized.
Mitchell told The Atlantic in September that people in Burma were afraid the Rohingya had a separatist agenda; he did not say he shared those fears.
After The Daily Beast drew his attention to the error, he wrote to The Irrawaddy saying, “I understand the pressures you all may feel to make a statement on these things but I don’t want to be co-opted into that and misrepresented.”
Kyaw Zwa Moe, the editor who misquoted Mitchell, replied with an apology and said the error was due to a mistranslation of his words in the English transcript. But a review of the footage by The Daily Beast revealed the original Burmese to be just as misleading.
Last month the outlet stoked fears about “Bengali terrorists” when it rewrote an article from the AFP news agency about armed attackers raiding border guard posts at Rohingya camps in Bangladesh. The story was packaged as if it had just happened, when in fact it was over a year old.
The Irrawaddy swiftly removed the article and apologized, adding that the error was unintentional, but not before the former information minister shared it to his Facebook followers, fueling anti-Rohingya sentiment.
The controversy raises tough questions for donor organizations funding independent media. While some, including Ambassador Mitchell, think donors have no place influencing editorial policy, others think the National Endowment for Democracy should threaten to take its money elsewhere unless the publication changes its stance on the Rohingya.
The outlet is “increasingly serving the interests of the government and those engaged in ethnic cleansing,” said Jonathan Hulland, who has worked in Burma with the Open Society Foundations, which used to fund The Irrawaddy but stopped for reasons it says were unrelated to their Rohingya coverage. “Donors should withdraw funding if The Irrawaddy’s position on and characterization of the Rohingya crisis doesn’t change.”
“We are not a human rights agency, we are a news agency,” said Aung Zaw. He added: “I don’t see any message, any sign that [donors] are withdrawing.”
A spokesperson for the National Endowment for Democracy declined to comment on whether or not it would withdraw funding.
The Irrawaddy’s move toward a government-friendly stance on the Rohingya reflects a change in Aung Zaw’s own public stance.
Like Burma’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Aung Zaw was once lauded internationally, albeit far less prominently, for his defiance of the military junta.
In 2014 he received an International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists, and in 2013 a New York Times op-ed under his name expressed heartfelt sympathy for the Rohingya, denouncing “hatemongers” who claimed that “Rohingya… were being joined en masse by illegal migrants from Bangladesh.”
Fast forward to September this year, when the editor in chief told CNN: “Rohingya is just a name. Rohingya is not an ethnic minority that belongs to Burma.”
Aung Zaw has also bought the government’s line that the international community’s concerns about the Rohingya are an attempt to damage Burma’s reputation, and that Burmese journalists have a responsibility to correct this.
“We might ask if we are getting defeated at the diplomatic level because our response and countering with public relations has been very weak,” he said in a video posted to The Irrawaddy’s Facebook page in September.
In the same video he said foreign journalists and aid agencies supported the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a small militia whose attacks on police posts in August gave the Burmese military an excuse for its massacres.
“We can definitely see that ARSA gets support and sympathy from the media, especially Western media organizations, lobbyists, NGOs, and campaigners,” he said.
Jason Nelson, who worked at The Irrawaddy for more than 10 years, and who, like many foreign journalists there, left on bad terms, said Aung Zaw has hardened his stance on the Rohingya because he wants to appeal to potential investors inside Burma to make him less reliant on donors.
“There’s no reason foreign taxpayers should be subsidizing his efforts to curry favor… inside the country,” Nelson said.
Aung Zaw’s salary might be partly funded by the U.S., but in his view a good journalist ought to reject the international consensus on the Rohingya tragedy.
In the September video he complained about some unnamed young reporters he deemed to be ill-informed on the issue: “These kids… think what the white people say is true and are blathering on about human rights.”
—with additional reporting by Cape Diamond