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Anti-coup Protests in Myanmar Are Breaking New Ground – Frontier Publisher Sonny Swe

Shibani Mahtani (left) speaks to Sonny She (right)

Protests taking place across Myanmar in the aftermath of the February 1 military coup are unlike any prior demonstrations because of the unity between different generations and the use of technology, said Sonny Swe, co-founder and publisher of Frontier Myanmar, in a Zoom webinar hosted by the FCC. 

“It’s a lot more organised, it’s a lot more tech-savvy and there are three generations working together,” Swe said. “This is a different resistance now.”

The COVID-19 pandemic had forced people in Myanmar to unify and help each other, a trend which has carried over to the country’s Civil Disobedience Movement, which aims to cripple the military through strikes that will weaken the economy. 

“That’s why you see citizens helping each other and helping each other. It comes from the COVID [response],” Swe told FCC Correspondent Governor Shibani Mahtani during the discussion. “This is the positive sign of this country.”

Swe said the junta has been caught off guard by the overwhelming backlash to the coup, and that the military’s way of thinking hasn’t changed in decades. Investor confidence has plummeted in a way it didn’t in past times of social unrest, he said.  

“A lot of people don’t trust in the military regime,” he said. “The strategies they’re using aren’t working obviously.”

Asked to comment on the controversy surrounding CNN correspondent Clarissa Ward’s recent reporting trip to Myanmar, Swe said that it had been misleading to label the story an exclusive – “the only exclusive was getting the permission” to enter the country. 

He understood why a news outlet would accept such a trip, but “CNN should have done the proper homework before she flew into Myanmar”.

“We have the other international news outlets here and also we have local journalists who are risking their lives every day on the street reporting everything”.

As for Myanmar-based media organisations, he said that they were facing an increasingly difficult situation.

“We are trying our best to stay alive at this point,” Swe said. 

Frontier had launched a membership programme before the pandemic and it was picking up, but safety was a major concern.

He described a situation of increasing danger for the journalists he employs, and the steps he’s taken to try to keep everyone safe and minimise harm, including only assigning people to cover their townships so they don’t have to travel. 

Still, the situation grows increasingly dangerous for journalists, and Swe shared the story of one of his journalists in Mandalay who’d been shot in the hand and will likely never regain full function in it, despite having undergone three surgeries already.

“If something like this happens, it ruins someone else’s life,” Swe said. “The only thing I can do is to keep fingers crossed and tell them to be safe, and I don’t know how long we will hold on to this.”

Watch the full event:

Fareed Zakaria on U.S.-China Relations and the Post-Pandemic World

FCC President Keith Richburg speaks to Fareed Zakaria via Zoom.

The relationship between the United States and China is set to define the global order for decades to come, and both countries will emerge strongly from the COVID-19 pandemic in different ways, said journalist and author Fareed Zakaria in a Zoom webinar hosted by the FCC.

“You’re going to be thinking about America’s relationship to China and China’s relationship to America, and everything will be read through that prism,” Zakaria said. “How do you maintain that open system while having this rivalry? That’s the great challenge for both the United States and China.”

Though he said that China will of course benefit from the pandemic due to its “vaccine diplomacy” efforts and by virtue of being the world’s second-richest economy, Zakaria, who hosts Fareed Zakaria GPS for CNN Worldwide and is a columnist for The Washington Post, was quick to argue that the U.S. will remain richer and more powerful for a long time to come.

“The United States has 59 treaty allies, China has one: North Korea. The United States has 800 bases around the world, China has three,” Zakaria said. “The truth is China is in a geographically very complicated place where as it rises, it annoys the hell out of its neighbours: India, Vietnam, Japan, South Korea, Australia.”

Zakaria, whose mother Fatima, died recently of complications caused by COVID-19, made the appearance to discuss his most recent book, Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World

He spoke to FCC President Keith Richburg about how countries around the world have fared during the pandemic, and he credited smart governments and early intervention for staving off serious public health crises in various nations. Zakaria also singled out Taiwan’s government for acting early, aggressively and intelligently in response to COVID-19 by quickly identifying and quarantining infected and potentially infected people. 

“What’s remarkable is that Taiwan was able to get through this crisis with 10 COVID deaths with a population of 22 million and, much more importantly, not a single day’s lockdown,” Zakaria said. “Just to give you a comparison, Taiwan has 22 million people, New York State has 20 million people. New York State is at 40,000 deaths, Taiwan is at 10.”

Though he said Hong Kong has strong, competent institutions like Taiwan, he described the city as a “very peculiar, unique case” with regard to pandemic management and the vaccine rollout. He pointed to relations between Hong Kong and China as well as “Hong Kong people’s distrust of Carrie Lam’s government” as complicating factors. 

In his book, Zakaria elaborates on different ways the world is likely to change after the pandemic is over, and during the talk he said that where people choose to live and how they choose to work will shift significantly, with more people moving from big cities to suburban areas and smaller cities. 

“You will view offices as places where you meet, gather, plan, congregate, but you don’t have to do solo work there and if you do, you’ll get a cubicle where you will plug in” Zakaria said. “Other than C-suite executives, the idea of a dedicated office that you have 24/7 with your family photographs and memorabilia, that I think is a relic of the past.”

Despite many countries turning inward during the pandemic, Zakaria predicted that globalisation will continue, albeit in a slower, more thoughtful way. He also described the world as being in a state of “new class warfare” with democracy under threat as autocrats exploit the growing divide between urban, educated populations and their rural, less educated counterparts. 

“The autocrats have gotten very clever over the last 15 years, and they have figured out how to use democracy to subvert democracy,” Zakaria said. 

In spite of the technological advances that have made remote work and social interaction possible during the pandemic, Zakaria pointed to the shortcomings of remote education as a reminder that we are human and can’t interact solely on Zoom. 

“We will want to actually gather physically and get the social connection that comes from actually being in the presence of people and in groups and having accidental conversations and serendipitous meetings.”

 

Watch the full discussion:

Belt and Road Requires Greater Transparency and Better Decision-making to Succeed in the Future: FCC Panelists

Clockwise from top left: Dan Strumpf, James Wang, Nargis Kassenova, Jonathan Hillman

Nearly eight years after it was first announced, the Belt and Road Initiative has a mixed record of successes and failures, but the panelists who participated in a discussion hosted by the FCC said that greater transparency from China and better decision-making from its partner countries were both necessary for the BRI to move forward in a positive direction.

“China needs to step up and follow international best practices, and increase transparency around lending,” said Jonathan Hillman, author of The Emperor’s New Road: China and the Project of the Century. At the same time, he said, “Recipient countries need to be their own best advocates and make decisions that aren’t just a sort-of short-term political play but in the best long-term economic interests of their countries.”

Harvard University’s Nargis Kassenova, an expert in Central Asian politics and security, echoed the call for greater transparency. She used the example of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, two countries whose debt level to China is well documented, versus Turkmenistan, which she said has no transparency about its loans from China.

Despite some of the political and economic fallout in various countries participating in the BRI, James Wang, research director of the Bay Area Hong Kong Centre / Belt and Road Hong Kong Centre, said it goes both ways, with unstable regimes and uncertain economic situations posing their own threats to Chinese lenders and state-owned enterprises.

The panelists also spoke about the effects of the pandemic on China’s “Health Silk Road”, vaccine diplomacy and whether the U.S. and other Western nations could build a successful alternative to Belt and Road.

“The Health Silk Road is now being pushed and picking up momentum, but it did precede the pandemic,” Kassenova said. She added that the pandemic had complicated China’s standing in Central Asia, with demand for Russian vaccines outpacing demand for Chinese-made jabs.

Vaccines can certainly play a role in strengthening relations with other countries, Wang said, noting that it built on China’s history of sending doctors to developing nations in the past.

As for the U.S. creating its own version of the BRI in collaboration with allies, Hillman said that more choice and competition would be a good thing.

“I think we see along the Belt and Road, sometimes the worst-case outcomes are countries who just didn’t have an alternative.”

Watch the full discussion:

The Dark Side of Instagram You Haven’t Heard About

FCC Correspondent Member Governor Kristine Servando (left) and Bloomberg journalist Sarah Frier (right)

Instagram is typically thought of as a lighthearted platform for posting food photos and looking at your friends’ vacations snaps, but as Bloomberg journalist Sarah Frier, author of No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram, explained in an FCC Zoom talk, it’s also rife with misinformation and illegal activity.

“There’s still a hell of a lot of fake news and misinformation on Instagram,” said Frier. “It is just hidden in these communities of people who follow it really intensely and maybe doesn’t bubble up into the mainstream the way a Trump tweet would.”

She said that a U.S. Senate investigation found that Russia had posted more misinformation on Instagram than Facebook during the 2016 presidential election. She also said the app is being used for illegal drug sales, human trafficking and, over the past year, the spread of health misinformation from some wellness influencers who peddle bad medical advice to beat Covid.

“It is harder to find the dark sides because of the lack of virality, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible,” said Frier. “It’s harder to find manipulated media or false information in images as opposed to in text. And it’s harder to find it in video. So I think that it might be more difficult to clean up Instagram.”

Though Facebook, which owns Instagram, is regularly the subject of public criticism and negative publicity due to data privacy concerns, Frier said that Instagram has been spared even though all of its data is shared with Facebook. The two platforms share the same data usage and privacy policies, she explained.

“People have not been as critical of Instagram because they like Instagram,” Frier said. “The moment of reckoning for Instagram just simply hasn’t happened at the level that it should.”

Though Instagram has actively worked to create a wholesome ecosystem and amplify the voices of activists, the LGBTQ community, creatives and people of colour, Frier said the often-overlooked dark side of the app can no longer be ignored because of its outsized influence.

“This is an app that has had this tremendous influence on our culture, on our economy, on our sense of self, on what we consider to be relevant in our society.”

Watch the full event:

How Three Women Correspondents Changed Modern War Reporting


FCC First Vice President Eric Wishart speaks to author Elizabeth Becker.

Three pioneering women correspondents — Frances FitzGerald, Catherine Leroy and Kate Webb — changed the nature of modern war reporting and even the course of history with their coverage of the Vietnam War, Elizabeth Becker said in an FCC book event.

“They expanded the lens, they looked at the country and the people, they brought a humanity that was missing,” Becker, author of You Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War, told FCC First Vice President Eric Wishart.

She explained how the three correspondents’ work was different from both previous war reporting and that of their male contemporaries.

In her book, Becker tells the inspiring story of how these three women from very different backgrounds made their own way to Vietnam and overcame sexism and other challenges to become well-respected war correspondents.

No stranger to war having covered the conflict in Cambodia, Becker noted the high mental and emotional costs of reporting in war zones, though she said that the difficult subject matter did not lead to bias in coverage.

“Once you see the pain and the destruction and the horror of war, your motivation is to be more objective, not less,” Becker said.

Watch the full conversation below:

Philippines’ Marawi Siege Offers Lessons on Battling Disinformation and Propaganda

When the Philippines launched the biggest military assault since World War II against Islamic State-linked extremists who seized the southern Philippine city, journalist Carmela Fonbuena, then working for Rappler, dropped into the centre of the action to cover the toll on ordinary citizens.

As the war dragged on for months, she found a parallel disinformation war playing out especially on social media, spreading inaccurate information about government operations or casualties — sowing fear, confusion, or worse, violence. She said false news can spread like wildfire because people “are so desperate for any information.”

“If we don’t fact-check information that’s spreading on the ground, that’s what people will believe if no one corrects it,” she told the FCC in a forum about her latest book Marawi Siege: Stories From the Front Lines.

“That to me highlights [journalists’] very important role in delivering important information during a crisis, whether it’s the Marawi siege or the coronavirus pandemic,” she said in a discussion moderated by FCC Correspondent Governor Kristine Servando.

And when reporters become targets of online harassment by individuals who disagree with facts on the ground, Fonbuena says it is important to build an emotional support network around oneself — and to avoid trolls. “I would rather spend time writing stories that more people will read than engage with a single individual who won’t be convinced,” she said.

View the rest of the video below, where she talked about lessons on how extremism spreads, war’s invisible toll on mental health, and the role of women in the front lines. Her book Marawi Siege can be ordered from [email protected] and shipped internationally.

 

Governments, journalists share responsibility for combating vaccine misinformation


FCC First Vice President Eric Wishart left) and First Draft APAC Bureau Editor Esther Chan (right)

Governments and journalists both have a role to play in combating the spread of COVID-19 vaccine-related misinformation, First Draft APAC Bureau Editor Esther Chan said In a virtual workshop hosted by the FCC, Hong Kong. With vaccination campaigns picking up speed around the world, Chan said that vaccination campaigns and misinformation go hand in hand.  “With vaccine rollout, misinformation also starts to proliferate online, and it can be because of a number of reasons: limited data about the vaccines, lack of confidence in its efficacy or even a lack of trust in the government,” she said. Chan began her presentation with a real-world example of a conspiracy theory that recently went viral in Hong Kong — that Chief Executive Carrie Lam and other government ministers did not in fact receive the Sinovac vaccine as they said, but rather the jab produced by Pfizer-BioNTech or AstraZeneca.  The basis for this rumour rested on the fact that the syringe used to administer the vaccine to Lam was longer and thinner than those that had been depicted in previous news coverage of the Sinovac jab.  “Even though this claim was unproven, it quickly went viral online,” Chan said. The Hong Kong government later confirmed that Lam and other officials had received the Sinovac vaccine, while pointing out that neither the Pfizer-BioNTech nor AstraZeneca jabs had arrived in the city yet.  An opinion poll conducted by the University of Hong Kong at the end of January showed that less than a third of the city’s residents trusted the Sinovac vaccine. In December, Lam had responded to speculation over the reasons for her government’s decision to buy 7.5 million doses of Sinovac by saying “some people with ulterior motives were spreading malicious rumours and publishing false information that stigmatises and politicises the vaccine purchase”. Attacking critics of the government’s vaccine policy was not the most constructive approach, Chan said in the workshop moderated by FCC First Vice President Eric Wishart. “How Carrie Lam described people who were critical of the Sinovac vaccine, that’s really not helpful because there’s already maybe an issue of trust in the Hong Kong government,” she said.  “It should really be an objective discussion instead of mixing politics in, so I feel like the government messaging is not really helping with the vaccine hesitancy in Hong Kong.” Similarly, she shared advice for journalists who are tasked with covering vaccine rollouts and misinformation. “When you notice something that is shaping how people think about an important issue like public health, you probably should address it but in a really careful way,” Chan said.  “Back it up with a lot of important scientific data that people really should know. Lead them from focusing on a rumour back to the facts.” The workshop also focused on social media’s role in spreading vaccine misinformation, which commonly follows narratives with six different themes. While Facebook and Twitter are often considered the primary platforms for spreading misinformation, Chan explained that Instagram also plays a significant role and is often overlooked because it’s harder to search for specific content on the visual-driven platform. For journalists and anyone else seeking resources about COVID-19 vaccine misinformation, Chan recommended using First Draft as an educational tool. The organisation offers an online Vaccine Insights Hub where you can sign up to watch 30-minute workshops — including a special recap session on Friday, March 5 — and receive a weekly newsletter. First Draft also offers an extensive free library of training materials to support journalists and members of the public in understanding and managing all types of disinformation. Watch the full workshop below:

 

Bauhinia Party Chairman Li Shan: “If Hong Kong is doing well, then Beijing has no reason to intervene”


FCC President Keith Richburg and Bauhinia Party chairman Li Shan.

In his first public remarks since the formation of the Bauhinia Party in March 2020, party chairman Li Shan said he wants the new political party to bridge Hong Kong’s blue-yellow divide to solve the city’s pressing social problems, though he seeks no role as an elected official.

“Our colour is patriotism,” said Li, highlighting the party’s focus on unity.

Speaking from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong in a conversation with club president Keith Richburg, Li also said he is not a member of the Communist Party and he was not prodded by Beijing to start a new pro-China party. He went on to defend the central government’s increasingly interventionist role in Hong Kong’s affairs, comparing the city to a poorly performing business subsidiary.

“If Hong Kong is doing well, then Beijing has no reason to intervene,” said Li.

In an opening statement outlining the Bauhinia Party’s purpose and vision for the future of Hong Kong, Li painted a picture of a city that has lost its former greatness and entered dark times due to income inequality, a shortage of affordable housing and a lack of opportunity for many people. He said that these fundamental problems have led to widespread despair and anger, even as he called for unity to confront the city’s systemic problems.

“If we work together, Hong Kong can, and will, become a shining paragon of modern society once again,” said Li.

Born in a poor village in Sichuan before going on to become a successful banker, Li said he was naive and uneducated about Hong Kong politics until recently, and that his involvement in forming a new political party stemmed from his love of the city and, more pertinently, concern about its future.

A member of the 13th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, Li will soon be attending the annual session in Beijing, where he said he will be putting forth new proposals to address Hong Kong’s affordable housing crisis.

Li and his fellow party members have also proposed changes to the Legislative Council, including turning it into a bicameral body with a lower house of directly elected members and an upper house composed of members appointed by the Chief Executive. Asked to describe LegCo’s relationship to the Chief Executive, he said, “Of course there is a check and a balance.”

Though Li said he currently has no plans to run for LegCo or Chief Executive, he said the Bauhinia Party will focus its efforts on the selection of the city’s top-ranking official. “I think she most certainly can do a better job,” Li said in regards to Carrie Lam’s performance. Earlier, in his opening statement, he had asked, “Where are the strong leaders we need to tackle Hong Kong’s challenges? Who can restore hope?”

Patriotism has been a hotly discussed topic in Hong Kong recently, and Li agreed with the central government’s assertion that the city should be governed by patriots. In spite of the increasingly direct role Beijing has taken in Hong Kong affairs, Li said he had no knowledge of attempts to engineer changes to the city’s political system.

“I do believe Beijing will welcome all sorts of talents who love this city and love China,” said Li. “I don’t think they have narrowly defined criteria.”

RTHK One of Many Public Broadcasters Globally Under Pressure: Ex-BBC Head Mark Thompson

 

Mark ThompsonWith RTHK coming under increasing criticism from the government in recent months, former BBC Director-General and New York Times Co. CEO Mark Thompson spoke about the challenges facing public broadcasters in Hong Kong and around the world in a Zoom interview with The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong on Tuesday.

“In countries which don’t really have any big commitment to democracy, and who genuinely believe, or claim to believe, that solidarity and focus on what we all agree on is good – and everything else is not legitimate and valuable but actually is illegitimate and criminal – it’s not surprising that a public broadcaster gets acute pressure from the authorities,” said Thompson. “That seems to be playing out in Hong Kong as it is in so many other countries.”

Commenting on recent troubling developments including the suspension of a satirical programme as well as the arrest of an investigative reporter, Thompson expressed sympathy and solidarity with RTHK. “I’ve been interviewed by them, have colleagues there and regard RTHK as a sister broadcaster,” he said. When you threaten one public broadcaster, you kind of threaten them all in a way. It’s a bit like NATO: an attack on one is an attack on all.”

Reflecting on the history of RTHK, Thompson noted that it had not always exercised the same level of editorial independence that it has in recent years, particularly during the colonial era. “After the handover, clearly RTHK made real efforts to try and be dispassionate and objective in the way it covered, let’s say, last year’s disruptions and the government and the protesters,” said Thompson. “It feels like they’re under more pressure [now].”

Thompson also highlighted the important role that governments should play, or rather should not play, in allowing public broadcasters to operate freely. “It really depends on a group of very powerful people exercising self-restraint” and believing that “it’s in the greater public good that there should be an exchange of ideas, that journalists should be allowed to hold governments to account.” Ultimately, Thompson argued, “If the government doesn’t want it to exist, it won’t exist. In the end, they can switch you off.”

Thompson made clear that the problem isn’t limited to Hong Kong – “this is true of Western liberal democracies, it’s true of controlled societies” – and cited examples including Russia and nations in central and eastern Europe to illustrate his point, as well as his former employer. “The BBC has remained over decades a beacon of independence,” said Thompson, but not without its challenges.

“Winston Churchill hated the BBC and hated the idea of having a public broadcaster who was outside his control,” said Thompson, noting that, in more recent times, the British government has occasionally taken a more hands-on, aggressive approach to the public broadcaster in the form of official enquiries or funding cuts. He pointed to “wounded egos” inside Boris Johnson’s government who felt the broadcaster had been too tough on the Conservatives’ election campaign and threatened retribution. When the people controlling the purse strings threaten public broadcasters, Thompson said, “it’s bad for democracy.”

As for news organisations that aren’t supported by government funds, Thompson said they have their own challenges to face but dismissed the notion that consumers aren’t willing to spend on news subscriptions. “The whole notion that people won’t pay for news is based on a vision of the Internet circa 1999,” said Thompson, who argued that the public’s willingness to pay for different sources of entertainment such as Netflix proves that they are willing to do the same for high-quality news.

Still, he said, there are many financial challenges for newspapers to overcome, both due to the ongoing pandemic as well as long-term trends such as Facebook and Google providing cheap digital advertising solutions that have disrupted business models. Thompson was optimistic about the future, however, saying that “the idea that people don’t want high-quality news is not true” but rather something the owners of news organisations needlessly worry about.

Newspapers and other publications will have to get creative in order to survive, he said, adding that various sources of funding including private donors, philanthropic organisations, and commercial sponsorships could keep smaller newsrooms alive in the future. Even Google and Facebook might come to the rescue: “If they step up to the mark, it’s possible to imagine these huge platforms being a source of funding for these local publications.”

Watch the full interview here:

Investigative Reporter Mara Hvistendahl on Industrial Espionage and U.S.-China Relations

Mara Hvistendahl

Appearing in a Zoom interview to discuss her second book, The Scientist and the Spy, author Mara Hvistendahl described a reporting process that took her from China to the Midwestern United States and back as she followed an intriguing legal case that reflected the rise of tensions between the world’s two largest economies. The book recounts the story of a Chinese-born scientist who was caught trying to steal genetically modified corn seeds from a field in Iowa, which led to a two-year FBI investigation and the scientist’s imprisonment.

According to Hvistendahl, an investigative reporter at The Intercept, issues related to trade secrets theft were once handled between companies and never focused on individual employees. In recent years, however, she said both the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice have “posed industrial espionage as some sort of existential threat to the United States,” as the government has prosecuted dozens of cases on behalf of large corporations with the supposed aim of “protecting innovation in America.”

“When you dig into what sort of cases are being brought,” said Hvistendahl, “it is these cases that benefit huge corporations in anti-competitive industries.” As a result, she argued, there are valid concerns about the federal resources that are being spent on such cases. For example, the case that is the focus of her book unfolded in multiple states over two years and involved more than 70 FBI agents as well as lengthy court proceedings.

As industrial espionage has become a flashpoint in U.S.-China relations, Hvistendahl’s reporting also found a worrying trend of racial profiling, with several Chinese scientists being arrested only to later be found innocent. The author said this could be traced back to a secret U.S. government surveillance program that monitored Chinese citizens in the 1960s and 1970s, which she uncovered in the process of doing research for her book.

Reflecting on the process of combining investigative and narrative journalism to weave a thrilling story told from multiple perspectives, Hvistendahl highlighted the merits of painstaking research and rigorous reporting. “This is a complex story that I would not have been able to portray if I had relied only on the court documents and not looked more into the people behind the story,” she said.

Watch the full interview:

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