This essay will investigate the role of images in the media’s presentation of current events using the example of Myanmar/Burma protests. It is a well-known scientific fact that humans absorb the greatest amount of information through the visual channel; therefore, contemporary media places a significant emphasis on the use of effective images in the presentation of news. Images coupled with specific vocabulary are the most powerful tool of framing public discourse concerning current events.
As for the background information about the crisis in Myanmar/Burma, there has been a series of protests against human rights abuses and crackdown on ethnic minorities going on in the country since late August. The protests have been started by monks and supported by ordinary citizens. In late September, the military government of Myanmar/Burma responded with the police violence and arrests. Such a response sparked a wave of international indignation, and both Myanmar/Burma activists and their supporters abroad call upon the international institutions to take a decisive action to solve the crisis that has not been fully settled yet.
For the purposes of this essay, three most influential news media providers were selected, namely CNN, BBC, and Reuters. There is little variation in their representation of the events in Myanmar/Burma, yet each news provider uses its own set of images to communicate its message to its target audience.
CNN launched a series of articles tracking down all the developments of the situation in Myanmar/Burma. The article ‘Satellite photos may prove abuses in Myanmar/Burma, researchers say’ (CNN, 2007) is accompanied by a photograph showing a crowd of monks on a demonstration who are surrounded by other citizens. Deep red apparel of the monks contrasts with predominantly white clothes of other citizens, yet this photograph communicates a powerful message that many Myanmar/Burma citizens are united around the noble cause of confronting their government because of human rights abuses.
The photograph is probably taken from the plane or any spot high above the Earth surface. This very fact reminds the Western viewer that many media channels are banned from doing on-the-ground reporting from Myanmar/Burma. It further amplifies the perception of the Myanmar/Burma government as authoritarian and undemocratic one.
The thing that is probably missing from the image is the presence of authorities. It is well-known that streets of major Myanmar/Burma cities are flooded with the police and sometimes special forces. While the image effectively captures the peaceful spirit of the protests and high level of self-organization, it fails to convey the atmosphere of confrontation between citizens and authorities.
BBC frames the story with a noticeable human touch. British media is known to focus on the human factor before examining international political implications of a certain event. The story titled ‘Monks trying to escape Rangoon’ (BBC, 2007) goes together with a photograph of two young monks fleeing away at the top of a truck. In the background it is possible to spot several other trucks carrying other exiles away.
This image communicates a dual message: first of all, it persuasively portrays Buddhist monks as innocent victims of the oppressive regime rather than violent protesters; secondly, it indicates that the number of exiles exceeds the number of transport facilities available to them. Furthermore, it makes viewers think about the future of the protesters who are forced to leave their home country because of their political beliefs. It also puts the story in the wider regional context, since the conflict in Myanmar/Burma will also affect all the neighboring countries if exile becomes mass.
The inscription under the image reads ‘Many monks are desperate to leave Rangoon, witnesses say.’ The image advances the story by showing that the protesters are ready to trade the risk and insecurity of fleeing to another country from relative political freedom they can enjoy abroad.
Another BBC story, ‘Burmese play tense waiting game’ (BBC, 2007), also features an effective use of visual images. One of the images that accompany the story features Gen Than Shwe who heads the ruling junta and controls the army. The facial expression of Gen Than Shwe is conspicuously aggressive and hostile. To the Western viewer, such an image reminds of other historical forms of military dictatorship, ranging from Soviet-era military buildup to juntas in Latin America.
Perhaps the most effective use of visual images has been done by the Reuters (2007). Together with a series of stories, it offers a slideshow of 25 photographs representing the course of development of events in Myanmar/Burma. One of the photographs features a Buddhist monk standing by a placard that reads ‘Free Political Prisoners, Listen to the People.’ Young man is wearing glasses (the fact that resonates with the collective image of ‘intelligentsia’ from developing countries) and has a very determined expression on his face. While there is a grammatical mistake in the word ‘Political,’ the image still credits the protesters for their brave attempts to attract the attention of international community.
In such a way, Western media frames the public discourse about the events in Myanmar/Burma is a sympathetic way and calls upon Western governments and international organizations to render necessary support to the peaceful protesters and population of the country.
CNN. ‘Satellite photos may prove abuses in Myanmar, researchers say.’ September 28, 2007. October 3, 2007. <http://edition.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/asiapcf/09/28/myanmar.satellites.ap/index.html >
BBC. ‘Monks ‘trying to escape Rangoon’.’ October 3, 2007. October 3, 2007. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/7025357.stm >
BBC. October 3, 2007. ‘Burmese play tense waiting game. October 3, 2007. October 3, 2007. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/7025357.stm>
The Reuters. ‘Myanmar junta arrests more.’ October 3, 2007. October 3, 2007. <http://www.reuters.com/article/topNews/idUSGOR22843620071003>