Alleging defamation, Burma’s Ministry of Information plans to take legal action against two media outlets after negotiations mediated by the country’s Interim Press Council broke down, according to the president’s spokesman.
Complaint letters were sent to the Interim Press Council concerning two articles that the ministry considered defamatory: one directed at President Thein Sein and published last month in the Myanmar Herald (Myanmar Tandawsint in Burmese) weekly journal, and the other a story by Daily Eleven in June alleging misuse of funds by the Ministry of Information in its purchase of printing presses.
Ye Htut, the minister of information as well as the presidential spokesman, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that the decision to take legal action was made due to the media groups’ refusal to issue corrections on their published stories.
“We decided to take legal action because the disputes could not be solved under the Press Council,” he said.
“Eleven Media Group had said they would not seek MPC’s mediation, so we will proceed with court action,” he added, referring to the council by its acronym. “We tried twice to seek the Press Council’s help, but it did not work out.”
Under a Media Law passed earlier this year, disputants must first seek mediation from the Press Council before any court action is brought.
The Myanmar Herald published an opinion interview with the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party’s lead researcher Myo Yan Naung Thein in its Aug. 9 issue, criticizing Thein Sein for waffling in his statements about whether he would seek re-election in 2015.
Pe Myint, an author and head of the MPC’s Disputes and Complaints Negotiation Committee, said the council failed because the ministry and concerned media outlets would not budge from their respective positions.
“We will have to wait and see how the courts will decide on the issues,” he said.
The Ministry of Information sought an apology from the Myanmar Herald, but the journal’s offer fell short of the ministry’s demands.
“We didn’t write anything wrong,” said Aung Kyaw Min, deputy chief editor of the Myanmar Herald. “They said our reporting damaged the president’s dignity. We explained that this was not true to MPC. MOI requested that we apologize. … To tell you frankly, we also offered to what extent we could apologize but they didn’t accept it.”
“As they [the Myanmar Herald] did not accept our demands to make an apology while their writing contained defamatory descriptions of the president, we are thinking we will proceed legally,” Ye Htut said.
A member of the Press Council said Eleven Media stopped seeking the council’s intervention in August. The news organization maintains that its reporting was accurate.
“The most important thing is, if they want to sue us they should solve their problem first,” Wai Phyo, the editor-in-chief of Daily Eleven, told The Irrawaddy. “We reported about MoI’s irregularities in the printing machine purchase with solid evidence. It would be fairer if they explained about it first and sued us later.
“We reported about those irregularities simply because we wanted to point out that public funding could be misused like that,” he added. “We stand for truth and are ready to face anything for it. I repeat, we are ready for the truth.”
Denying the corruption allegations, Ye Htut said the Eleven story had damaged the reputations of the ministry, its former Minister Aung Kyi and staff.
Aung Kyaw Min and Wai Phyo both told The Irrawaddy that their respective publications had not yet received a court summons or notification of the impending charges from the ministry.
Since the formation of the Interim Press Council, it has intervened in more than 80 complaints submitted either by media practitioners or the Ministry of Information. Council members say more than 60 cases have been resolved thanks to their interventions.
While media reforms since 2012 have been widely lauded, press freedoms have also been challenged on several fronts, including the jailing of journalists and an investigation by Special Branch police into the finances of several Rangoon-based publications.
Additional reporting by The Irrawaddy’s Sanay Lin.