RANGOON — Members of the Burmese media have rejected a message from President Thein Sein to Parliament on Friday, in which he claimed that local and international journalists share blame for outbreaks of anti-Muslim violence that have marred Burma’s democratic transition.
Last week, Union Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann asked the president questions about concerns over a deterioration of Burma’s media climate, and urged him to defuse growing tensions between the government and local media.
The tensions follow an increase in threats and arrests of journalists by authorities in recent months. At least seven journalists at the now-defunct Bi Mon Te Nay journal were arrested in the past weeks, while four journalists and the CEO of the closed down Unity journal were sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment with hard labor for a report on an alleged chemical weapons factory.
Special Branch Police have also launched vaguely defined investigations into the finances of numerous media outlets and questioned many editors.
In his reply to the speaker, Thein Sein questioned the role of media in Burma and said it had contributed to inter-communal violence that has recurrently erupted across the country in the past two years. During the most recent outbreak in early July, Burma’s second biggest city Mandalay was rocked anti-Muslim violence that left two people dead and 14 injured.
“Improper, wedge-driving, unethical and instigating reports by some local and foreign media have resulted in mutual violence, killing and arson between two communities, and have tarnished the image [of Burma] on an international stage,” the president said.
“People want their press free but at the same time they want responsible, accountable and dignified reporting from the media, too,” he added.
Thein Sein maintained the government had nothing to do with the trial against the Unity journal reporters. A lawyer of the convicted men has said that it was the President’s Office that brought forth a complaint that led to their sentencing over trespassing and violating the State Secrets Act.
Violence erupted in Mandalay after unconfirmed allegations were circulated on social media claiming that a Muslim tea shop owner had raped a Buddhist maid, a type of allegation that has often appeared ahead of an outbreak of anti-Muslim violence.
Local authorities said at the time that they were holding two suspects in the rape case, but three weeks after violence had abated they announced that the accusations were false.
The Irrawaddy contacted Zaw Htay, director of the President’s Office asking for further explanation of Thein Sein’s remarks about the media, but he was unable to add any comments. “You can just read the message. For the time being, that’s all I can say,” he said.
Members of the Burmese media said Thein Sein’s opinion on the media was misguided and that he should recognize its constructive role.
“I don’t want [the government to say] things like the media are instigating unrest and being irresponsible,” said Thiha Saw, member of the interim Myanmar Press Council. “The government needs to see things differently; it is journalists who are providing the public with information. I want the government to see that we, journalists, are serving the people.”
He said the government seemingly fails to distinguish between mainstream objective news reporting and social media networks, such as Facebook which have become widely popular in Burma.
“Which [media] does the government refer to when it says some local and foreign media [are to blame]? Just name them exactly,” said Kyaw Min Swe, secretary of the interim Myanmar Press Council, while speaking at a media forum in Rangoon on the weekend. “The president’s words that conflict and violence are caused by media are simply provocative,” he added.
Phoe Thuakkyar, vice-chairman of the council, told the forum that the government was actively shrinking the space for independent media after a two year period of relative freedom, which followed the lifting of military regime-era media restrictions under Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government.
Last week, Shwe Mann said some Burmese media were eager to aggressively report after media restrictions were lifted, but were inexperienced and had sometimes made mistakes. He said Parliament and government should exercise patience and maintain good relations with the media in order to aid the reform process.