RANGOON — A front-page mash-up of Burma President Thein Sein portrayed in traditional Burmese dancing garb and published in a local newspaper has drawn the ire of officials and some local media, who feel the image oversteps ethical boundaries.
“Let’s cultivate union spirit,” ran the headline on the image—an apparent attempt to satirize Burma’s state media and official speeches, which regularly feature similar invocations.
Zaw Htay, a President’s Office official who posts on Facebook and Twitter under the nom de plume Hmuu Zaw, took to social media to ask, “Is it press freedom?”, referring to the image. The post has since been deleted, and when contacted by The Irrawaddy on Monday, Zaw Htay said “I have no comment on this publication,” but added, “journalists in Myanmar must obey the existing law.”
The row comes as Burma’s government has taken an increasingly critical approach to foreign and local media, particularly over coverage of violence in Arakan State in the country’s west.
Win Tin, a former journalist and a senior member of the National League for Democracy (NLD), Burma’s main opposition party, said that the newspaper’s portrayal of Burma’s president was improper.
“It is not appropriate to create an image like this, it appears disrespectful and the connection between the image and the other content on the page is not clear,” he told The Irrawaddy.
The offending image appears to have generated as much confusion as it has ire. Myint Kyaw, a journalism trainer, said that “I don’t know exactly what the editors are getting at, but it seems to suggest that the president is the key actor in the peace process, and wonders how he will play his role in the drama of developing federalism.”
Calls to The Right Time office were referred to publisher Nyunt Min Lwin, whose mobile phone was out of service on Monday.
Myint Kyaw, a member of Burma’s Press Council, told The Irrawaddy that he did not see the image as offensive, but Win Tin’s viewpoint seems to be shared by some other Burmese journalists, who have taken a high-handed view of The Right Time’s allegedly low-brow transgression.
Ko Ko, editor of The Yangon Times and another member of the Press Council, said he had just returned to Rangoon from Magwe Division, where he discussed media ethics with local journalists. The image, he said, sets a bad precedent for less well-trained reporters outside Rangoon. “We are trying to promote ethics among journalists, so I am upset by this,” he added.
But Shawn Crispin, the Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said some of the reaction to the image was overwrought.
“In countries with genuine press freedom, portraying national leaders in traditional dress or other out of the ordinary wares is par for the editorial course. Burma’s leaders need to be more open to criticism and less prickly about their portrayals in the press,” he told The Irrawaddy.
The Photoshopped image appeared in The Right Time alongside a scan of the Panglong Agreement, a 1947 deal signed by Gen. Aung San and three of Burma’s main ethnic groups. Talks about a proposed “nationwide ceasefire” between the Burma government and most of the country’s ethnic minority militias have been postponed several times since late 2013.
While the image was juxtaposed with a historical reference to Burma’s fraught inter-ethnic relations, it comes also after the early February jailing of five journalists from the weekly Unity journal over a report alleging that Burma has a chemical weapons factory in Magwe Division, and the December imprisonment of a reporter who was covering a corruption story in Karenni State for Eleven Media.
Burma Campaign UK Director Mark Farmaner told The Irrawaddy that “in the context of recent arrests of journalists, it is worrying for the future of free media in Burma that there is so much controversy about this image.”
Press Council member Ko Ko is concerned that the mocking of the president could affect upcoming media legislation. “I worry that the government can lobby to say the Myanmar media does not deserve the press freedom.”
A press law drawn up by the Council is being discussed in Burma’s legislature and is set to go before a joint sitting of Parliament’s 224-member Upper House and 440-strong Lower House.
“The Upper House is on our side but the Lower House wants to change our clauses,” Ko Ko said, adding that the Lower House would have the upper hand, due to weight of numbers, when the press code goes before the joint house—which is expected during the current sitting of Parliament.
Myint Kyaw said that the image was adding to consternation among Burma’s media because “people are nervous about a possible backlash against press freedom.”