PETER BULL AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD
Case Number: 2633
Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2017
Verdict: Not Upheld
Publication: New Zealand Herald
Balance, Lack Of
Comment and Fact
1) Peter Bull has complained about a news.com.au story that appeared in theHerald online headlined “Violence in Myanmar shows the world needs to stop romanticising Buddhism” published online on September 17, 2017. The index headline on the home page read “Brutal truth about Buddhists we ignore”.
2) It was angled on the role of majority-Buddhist Myanmar in the violence against the Muslim Rohingya minority.
3) It cited an expert’s view that people around the world needed to shed their romanticised view of Buddhism and Buddhists as a peaceful religion and confront the reality of what was happening in the region.
4) The article, which drew extensively on an Associated Press feature, said villagers fleeing across the border to Bangladesh told of mobs of soldiers and Buddhist monks setting houses on fire and spraying the area with automatic gunfire.
5) The expert, Dr Maung Zarni, is reported saying the world needed to shed a romanticised view of Buddhists and Buddhism as a peaceful religion and that Buddhism was as susceptible to political manipulation as was Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Judaism.
6) Mr Bull said the headline on the Herald’s World online section that read “Brutal truth about Buddhists we ignore” was gratuitous and sensationalist, slandering a whole religion based on the actions of a few in a Buddhist-majority country.
7) He questioned whether any media outlet would publish an article if the word Muslims replaced Buddhists. He said journalists were careful not to link the religion of a terrorist to their violent actions.
“If one reviews Dr Zarni's comments, it's clear that the short headline does not reflect Zarni's relatively mild statements. And regardless of his credentials, his comments represent an opinion only, not ‘truth’.”
8) He asserted the article was “one-sided and lacks objectivity; it condemns ‘Buddhists’ based on the accounts of violent insurgents and displaced Rohingya. These claims are presented uncritically without independent investigation or verification, while the accounts of non-Rohingya locals (such as the Hindu minority) are not reported”.
9) His complaint cited breaches of Press Council Principle 1 (accuracy fairness and balance), Principle 4 (comment and fact), and Principle 7 (discrimination and diversity). By implication he also complained of a breach of Principle 6 on headlines.
10) Senior newsroom editor Oskar Alley on behalf of the Herald said Dr Zarni was an acknowledged expert commentator and advocate who was entitled to express his views on Myanmar, Buddhism and its history.
11) He said the article was clearly presented as news not an opinion piece.
12) He rejected as simplistic Mr Bull’s argument that the act of killing meant that by definition the killer was not a Buddhist, by pointing to the Christian commandment not to kill which had not prevented Christians killing over the centuries.
13) He said it was a lengthy article “which seeks to provide extensive background and historical context to the current plight of nearly 400,000 Rohingya who have fled Rakhine state”.
14) Mr Bull does not catalogue specific inaccuracies and his complaint on this principle rests more on the article’s balance and fairness.
15) He alleges the accounts of violent insurgents and displaced Rohingya are presented uncritically without independent investigation or verification, while the accounts of non-Rohingya locals (such as the Hindu minority) are not reported.
16) It is not clear what he believes the Hindu minority view would have revealed. But the article does canvass other issues including, for instance, mention of the Muslim Rohingya insurgents’ role in an incident that may have sparked the latest round of violence.
17) It also mentions the claims by Myanmar that Rohingya are burning their own homes and villages, and the compelling view of the UN human rights chief who dismissed that as a denial of reality.
18) Dr Zarni’s reported comment that “Buddhism was as susceptible to political manipulation as was Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Judaism” provides context that weighs against the complaint of bias against Buddhists in particular.
19) It should also be noted that the article is not the only one in recent years to point out the involvement of Buddhists in violence.
Time magazine’s July 2013 cover article was about “The face of Buddhist terror: How militant monks are fueling anti-muslim violence in Asia”
It was subsequently banned by Myanmar.
20) The Herald article quickly moves on from Dr Zarni’s views to coverage of the extent of the violence and the size of the refugee problem before returning towards the end to Dr Zarni’s comments about the need for international action. It also provides historical context for the current human rights crisis - decades of persecution of the Rohnigya - as well as the contemporary international response.
21) Mr Bull also takes issue with the report’s failure to mention that Aung San Suu Kyi has no control over the military.
However in her case the thrust of the article is that as de facto leader of the country she had been virtually silent, despite her status in the country and amid widespread calls from the international community for her to speak out and use her influence as a Nobel Laureate.
The Council finds no breach of principle 1.
22) A news article can include the opinions of those interviewed, as it often will, without becoming an opinion piece. An opinion fairly represented in a news article does not breach the principle on comment and fact unless there is a failure to distinguish between the two.
25) Here Dr Zarni’s words are clearly presented as his own view on the prevailing attitude to Buddhism put into the context of the wider news article.
26) However the Council notes it would have been preferable if some background on Dr Zarni’s role as a long term advocate for the Rohingya had been included in the article rather than the bare reference to him being an expert.
The Council finds no breach of Principle 4.
27) The headline, which Mr Bull takes strongest issue with, was a short version headline on theHerald’s online homepage.
28) The Herald has agreed the wording cited by Mr Bull is correct but it could not provide the Council with a copy of it.
29) It seems the summary headline was part of a homepage listing - effectively a list of the stories that can be accessed. Readers who clicked on the item would be taken to the full article and its longer headline, to which Mr Bull expresses no specific objection.
30) Even so, as it stands the short headline is an accurate summary of the article’s main angle and the views expressed in it by Dr Zarni.
31) We note that Mr Bull says it does “not reflect Zarni's relatively mild statements”. However in the article Dr Zarni makes even stronger claims including of “fully fledged genocide” against the Rohingya in Myanmar.
The Council finds no reach of Principle 6.
32) This principle notes that, among other things, religion, minority groups and race “are legitimate subjects for discussion where they are relevant and in the public interest, and publications may report and express opinions in these areas. Publications should not, however, place gratuitous emphasis on any such category in their reporting”.
33) The issues of religion, race and minority groups are clearly relevant in the context of the violence and refugee exodus from Myanmar of a minority Muslim community fleeing the state forces of a Buddhist-majority state.
34) The Council does not believe the reporting in this case placed gratuitous emphasis on Buddhists’ role in the violence but instead represented the views of an expert advocate who wanted to redress what he saw as an imbalanced view of Buddhists as universally peaceful.
35) As cited in the discussion on Principle 1, the article mentioned the Muslim Rohingya insurgents’ role in an incident that may have sparked the latest round of violence and provided historical and current context.
36) It also mentions the claims by Myanmar that Rohingya are burning their own homes and villages, which the UN human rights chief dismissed as a denial of reality.
37) Dr Zarni’s reported comment that “Buddhism was as susceptible to political manipulation as was Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Judaism” provides context that weighs against the complaint of gratuitous emphasis.
The Council finds no breach of Principle 7.
The complaint is not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Jenny Farrell, Marie Shroff, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens and Christina Tay.
John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.