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Rebuttal to Rhys Thompson: The Unity Journal case


25 August 2014 14:08

Jeffrey Lewis is Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and founder of ArmsControlWonk.com. Catherine Dill is a Research Associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

We were extremely distressed by the article titled Myanmar: Media Freedom and the Unity Journal Case, written by Rhys Thompson. Worst of all, we feel forced to criticise people and an institution we like and admire. The Lowy Institute has been a wonderful addition to the policy discourse on Asia. We're not sure what happened this time.

Thompson's argument depends entirely on the awful idea that the brutal sentence (ten years of hard labour for the journalists) is justified because the reporting's sourcing is 'hazy and questionable.' A subsequent piece softens the tone, but leaves in place the argument that the Unity journalists remain partly to blame for 'poor' reporting, trespassing and other supposed infractions.

This is appalling.

The notion that press protections only apply to 'good' reporting amounts to having no press protections at all. A free press is an essential element of an open society. It cannot function when reporters must be perfect to avoid being thrown into jail for reporting on the financial dealings of those in power.

The facility near Pauk remains a mystery. Unity claimed the local villagers believed it to be a Chinese chemical weapons facility. Journalist John Arterbury has reported the suspicion of Bertil Lintner that the facility is involved in the North Korean missile trade. We would only note that the 'signatures' of the facility are similar to those at other sites where North Koreans are believed to be operating. The size and layout of the facility, to say nothing of the Government's reaction to its disclosure, should interest any reporter or anyone concerned about Myanmar's transition to an open society.

There are almost certainly errors in the Unity story. Any early story about such a secret site will contain mistakes; that is what happens when reporters try to untangle the lies and obfuscations of governments. Even Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein have noted that their initial stories about Watergate contained inaccuracies as they attempted to understand the scope of the conspiracy. One story incorrectly linked three innocent White House officials to the Nixon Administration's wiretapping conspiracy. Thompson's argument boils down to the claim that the Nixon Administration should have been able to lock up the entire the staff of the Washington Post for 'hazy' reporting, an option Nixon would certainly have enjoyed.

Moreover, Thompson's argument is fundamentally dishonest. Let's say Lintner is right: it's a North Korean missile factory in violation of UN sanctions. Does anyone believe that, had the Unity reporters correctly identified the foreign personnel as North Koreans involved in an illicit arms deal, the sentences would have been lighter? The sentences were harsh not because the story was wrong (if it was wrong) but because Myanmar's Directorate of Defence Industries (DDI) wants to shield its activities from scrutiny.

Finally, who is Rhys Thompson to tell us what the facility is or whether the reporting was good? As evidence that the quality of the reporting was poor, Thompson points the inclusion of 'supposedly irrelevant' details about the water and power supply. As nonproliferation policy experts, this statement is baffling. Details about water and power supply are essential to determining the purpose of the facility. We have been conducting, with a number of colleagues, an examination of the power supply precisely because such details help reveal the purpose of the facility. In substituting his judgment for that of a reader, Thompson illustrates the problem with authoritarianism. The authorities don't know what's best for you, despite their smug assurances.

In fact, the Unity reporters appear to have accurately reported what local villagers believed, whether the villagers were right or wrong. Many of the things the villagers told Unity are consistent with features visible in the satellite images we analysed — details such as the security perimeter, tunnels, helipads for visits by senior leadership figures and housing that looks to be for foreign workers.

Oh, and lest we forget, the villagers were right about one other minor detail as well. Their farms were taken without due process and their village was destroyed. You can see that in the satellite images, too.

That's quite a story, if you ask us. But, by all means, let's focus on any details that might be hazy and sentence five people to ten years hard labour. Let's emphasise that the journalists 'trespassed' at a site they said had no signs prohibiting entry, where no one asked them to leave, and in a manner that might result in a slap on the wrist in the US. Just as long as we don't ask any difficult questions about the process that led to the razing of a village, the construction of a suspicious defence facility with foreign workers, or DDI's continuing relationship with North Korea.

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