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ASIA: Journalists Lament Media Bias vs Ethnic Minorities

BANGKOK, Apr 29 2010 (IPS) - Despite issues of discrimination and violence hounding ethnic minorities, they continue to lack ‘voice’ in the mainstream press and suffer prejudices from journalists themselves.

Journalists from the Asia-Pacific region voiced this sentiment during the three-day 2nd International Media Conference in Hong Kong that concluded on Apr. 28.

Themed ‘Reporting New Realities in Asia and the Pacific’, the Honolulu-based East-West Center and the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre event gathered more than 200 journalists from the region.

Political repression and genocide, says Indonesian journalist Andreas Harsono, are occurring right now in Indonesia’s westernmost province of West Java, some 4,000 kilometres west of the capital Jakarta. Yet, the mainstream media remain mum about it, he claims.

Similarly, the plight of some 130 ethnic minorities or 40 percent of Burma’s 56 million population is also often generally ignored by the Burmese press, although the media in exile are trying to take the lead in reporting on such issues.

“Since the 1960s, Papua has been off limits to foreign journalists. Because of this ban, they have to rely on reports by local journalists. Sadly, according to a local Papua leader, nine out of 10 Indonesian journalists in the province work for the state intelligence agency,” says Harsono, who is also the Indonesia and East Timor consultant to the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.

The oppression of Papuans in West Java, recounts Harsono, began in 1962 with Indonesia’s military incursions and subsequent rule of the state in 1969.

“The Burmese media are newbies when it comes to covering the ethnic issue. There is a general lack of understanding among Burmans about ethnic issues and reports are very limited,” notes Aung Zaw, founder and editor of ‘The Irrawaddy’ magazine, which is published by exiled Burmese journalists in Thailand.

Many of Burma’s ethnic groups, such as the Karen and Kachin, have long been engaged in separatist movements and comprise 40 percent of the whole Burmese population.

For Thailand-based researcher and coordinator of the Canadian International Development Agency’s human rights programme, South-east Asia Regional Cooperation in Human Development, Ahmed Abidur Razzque Khan, the media have also turned a blind eye on the plight of the Rohingyas, a Muslim ethnic group in west Burma, which is also called Myanmar.

“The Burmese and even the Thai media have generally ignored the Rohingyas and have not really gone beyond their reporting of the hundreds of refugees found afloat at sea by Thai authorities in 2008,” says Khan. Since then, there have not been any reports about them anymore, he added.

The Rohingyas are not recognised by the military government as Burmese citizens. For the past 20 years, hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas have fled to refugee camps in both the Bangladeshi and Thai borders. Reports say that even at the camps, the Rohingyas suffer from persecution and appalling living conditions.

Aung Zaw says that the prejudice and self-censorship prevailing among journalists about ethnic groups are very real issues.

“For our part, we try to bridge this gap by hiring as many ethnic minorities in our staff as possible, not as a token but because it is necessary to give them a voice through the media,” he explains. The media, he adds, play an important role in correcting misperceptions and biases.

Earning the trust of ethnic minorities, says Martha Mollison, director of the Australian production company Dancing Iris Video, takes time, and journalists, especially outsiders, have to be patient.

“Among some aboriginal communities, it is not OK to ask a direct question. The information is offered, not asked for,” she says.

With over 20 years of experience training indigenous peoples in video and print productions, Mollison says the “white journalist” has the responsibility of getting his stories right.

“Information is regarded by white people as a commodity. For indigenous peoples, information is a property that they can choose to allow you to know or not. And even if they allow you access to that information, it does not mean that you can sell that,” she adds.

The distrust among the Papuans of outsiders, especially the “straight-haired” Indonesians, explains Harsono, runs deep.

“In Papua, all journalists are straight-haired people and are Muslims. If you ask questions, they will keep mum,” says Harsono of the Papuans, who are of Melanesian origin like Australia’s Aborigines, and one of 800 ethnic groups in Indonesia.

It is quite sad, he adds, that the “massacre of the Papuans” has gone on unreported as “not a single newspaper in Indonesia mentions about the killings and persecution”.

Longing for independence, the Papuans resorted to sporadic resistance movements against the government in recent years. Figures show that some 30,000 Papuans have been killed since 1969 due to the conflict.

“It used to be that we could turn to the international media in pressuring the local media to report more about these persecutions. But with the banning of foreign media as well from Papua, the situation is not very hopeful,” Harsono tells IPS.

*The Asia Media Forum ( is a space for journalists to share insights on issues related to the media and their profession, as well as stories and opinions on democracy, development and human rights in Asia. It is coordinated by IPS Asia-Pacific.

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