MYANMAR - Not too long ago in the office of Myanmar's media censor, a young military officer crumpled up a newspaper article by a noted Myanmar writer and, dropping it on to the floor, used a golf putter to send it across the room.
The putter is now in the closet and the censorship office no more.
After four decades of military rule, the civilian government has freed the Internet, and handed out licences for private newspapers. So far, 31 licences have been issued and 12 privately run dailies appear regularly, in addition to four state-owned newspapers.
But private media has not exercised the responsibility that comes with freedom, critics say, especially on the hot-button issues of religion and ethnic relations.
Some think the anti-Muslim sentiment that has seized parts of this mostly Buddhist nation would not have been so inflamed had private media outlets applied higher standards and separated comment from reportage.
Sectarian violence in Myanmar's western Rakhine state last year killed more than 100 people, most of them minority Muslim Rohingya, and displaced 140,000 others.
This year, violence across central and northern Myanmar has left over 50 dead and displaced thousands.
The anti-Muslim wave is driven by right-wing nationalist Buddhist groups such as the 969 Movement led by Mandalay-based monk U Wirathu, who freely courts the media.
"The media in general tends to be nationalistic and stokes anti-Muslim fear," says Mr Aung Zaw, editor of the Irrawaddy news magazine. "And users of social media have been especially irresponsible."
There are at least two instances of what some consider to be partisan reporting.
When United Nations special envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana was in Myanmar last month, reports of private media groups such as Eleven Media portrayed him as being overly respectful to Muslims and not showing enough respect for the majority community.
But a source who was at some meetings refuted this, saying the envoy was equally respectful to all those he met.
At a peace conference in Yangon in July, a reporter from The Voice Weekly asked Muslim leader U Aye Lwin to sing the national anthem to show that he knew it.
The latter said the conference was not an appropriate venue and that he could sing it in private for the journalist.
However, the report said he refused to sing the national anthem.
Burman-Buddhist nationalism is a frequent theme. Recently, Buddhist mobs sang the national anthem as they torched Muslim homes and shops in a town in north-western Myanmar.
Dr Maung Zarni, a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, said in an e-mail to The Straits Times: "Most Burmese journalists are Islamophobic… and unprofessional. I am not surprised at all about irresponsible reportage (attempting) to stoke further ultra-nationalist sentiment."
Distorted reporting is not uncommon in Asian societies, especially those where religion and the state are closely intertwined.
In Sri Lanka, the predominantly Sinhala-language media has developed a strong anti-Muslim bias since early last year. The country's majority Sinhalese, much like the Burman majority in Myanmar, sees themselves as guardians of orthodox Theravada Buddhism.
"Myanmar is an extreme example of this - lifting the lid and seeing all the grievances emerge," says Mr Kunda Dixit, editor of Nepali Times and former co-publisher of Himal, a news magazine focusing on South Asia. "And the media laps it up. Hate speech sells - and worryingly, it is often on ethnic and religious lines which the media exploits for political or commercial reasons."
The government, which is now trying to place limits on the new free-for-all, has drafted legislation to give it the power to issue and cancel publication licences.
Information Minister Aung Kyi told journalists recently that Myanmar at this juncture needed a "socially responsible media code" with the government as a regulator.
It is faced with the choice of falling back on old authoritarian instincts or finding a balance between openness and control, according to author-historian Thant Myint U.
"The outcome remains unclear."
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