In early April, about fifteen soldiers showed up at an outdoor market in the north of Myanmar’s main city of Yangon. The country’s military staged a coup on February 1, and its response to a massive popular uprising against its rule has been to try to terrorize the entire population into submission. The arrival of men in camo usually means civilians are about to be threatened, beaten, abducted, or murdered.
On this occasion the soldiers were there to patrol the market ahead of a visit by a CNN camera crew, led by the network’s chief international correspondent, Clarissa Ward. Her team, along with a journalist from the Southeast Asia Globe who also filed for Al Jazeera and the Washington Post, was being escorted everywhere by the military on a tightly-controlled media trip. As they shot footage of the market, plainclothes regime officials lurked nearby.
Word of CNN’s visit to Myanmar had already spread across social media, sparking concerns that the junta would use the trip to present a false narrative to the world about the situation in the country.
It also divided opinion between those who hoped the trip would shine more light on the horrific crimes of the new junta, which has now murdered at least 739 people including dozens of children, and those who saw it as reckless parachute journalism that––regardless of what ended up being reported––would help to legitimize the regime.
But the stakes of the debate got much higher after the journalists arrived at the market. When locals realized they were there, the area erupted in an impromptu protest as people flashed three-fingered Hunger Games salutes and banged pots and pans. Others approached the journalists to talk, eager to make sure the junta’s narrative didn’t dominate their coverage.
“Are you scared to talk to me?” Allegra Mendelson, the Southeast Asia Globe reporter, asked one woman, a witness who saw the encounter tells CJR on condition of anonymity. “Yes, they are watching me,” the woman responded. At this, a man in plainclothes pulled the woman away from the reporter and said the conversation was over.
As soon as the journalists left, authorities came back to punish people for their disobedience, snatching two women and taking them to a military interrogation center. “We didn’t expect it to happen so fast,” the witness said. “After that, all the interviewees in the market moved out of their homes for their safety.” The military later said it had detained a third person.
Another eight people were detained the same day after the journalists visited a second market. Two young women shouted for help as they were led away by a man with a gun, who responded by asking if any onlookers would dare to intervene. The detainees were kept for several nights and repeatedly asked what they had told CNN, according to someone who narrowly avoided being arrested at the second market. At least eight of the eleven have now been released, CNN reported.
Ward later told Jake Tapper on air that the eight people from the second market had been detained and released after a few days, but neglected to mention the other three, who appear to still be in detention.
The trip was arranged by controversial Israeli-Canadian lobbyist Ari Ben-Menashe, who is charging the junta two million dollars to help show the world the “real situation” in Myanmar, according to a Reuters report. None of the reports CNN broadcast mentioned this, but they all tried to make the case that Ward’s visit was in the public interest. “Tell us why it’s so important for you to be there,” anchor John Berman asked her during one segment.
“We wanted to come here to report on the ground,” Ward said, “because, simply put John, no other journalists, international journalists, have been allowed into Myanmar since this coup happened.”
After this aired, observers on Twitter pointed out that several foreign journalists, including BBC and Al Jazeera contributors, were already in the country when the military seized power and many local journalists are covering events.
In another segment Tapper asked Ward why the regime allowed her into the country. “The military has its side of the story too,” she said, “and up until now they’ve been largely tight-lipped about what that is.”
But Aye Min Thant, a former Reuters reporter who was based in Yangon until fleeing the country recently, tells CJR they do not agree with that rationale. “The Myanmar military produces four newspapers, one of which is entirely in English, and also controls the airwaves in Myanmar. The military is not lacking for platforms to tell their side of the story.”
Amid increasing criticism, including from Burmese journalists and activists, Ward defended her trip on Twitter. “Very striking that I am being absolutely inundated with positive, heartfelt messages from people in Myanmar,” she said, “while a handful of white male academics/commentators (none of them in the country) write endless screeds about how offensive my trip is to the people of Myanmar.”
This is not the first time CNN has waded into ethically murky territory in Myanmar. In 2016 the network signed a deal with a broadcaster in the country called SkyNet to help it start a news channel and website. SkyNet’s owner, Kyaw Win, has long been linked to the military and in 2010 was accused of being heavily involved in land grabbing. The year after CNN signed the deal, Kyaw Win’s company publically donated $70,000 to the military at the height of its mass killing campaign against the Rohingya. CNN continued doing business with SkyNet afterwards.
CNN did not respond to several detailed questions about the Myanmar trip, its subsequent coverage, and the current status of its partnership with SkyNet. Ward did not respond to requests for an interview sent via Twitter and Instagram.Joshua Carroll and Tin Htet Paing are the authors. Joshua Carroll is a freelance journalist who was previously based in Myanmar. Follow him on Twitter @JershCarroll. Tin Htet Paing is a Burmese journalist working as an assistant news editor for Myanmar Now, an investigative news website.