RANGOON — A $50,000 donation by President Thein Sein to Burma’s interim Press Council on Wednesday has attracted criticism from local journalists. They said accepting the funds could affect the independence of Burmese media organizations and ongoing discussions about new media laws.
During a ceremony in Rangoon, the Deputy Minister for Information Pite Htwe presented a 50,000,000 kyats (around US$50,000) cheque to the press body. “Today, I’m assigned by the President’s Office to hand over the money to Press Council as a means of support,” he said, adding, “It will not interfere with the council’s independence.”
The financial assistance came two days after the first meeting between President Thein Sein and the council’s leading members in Naypyidaw. During the meeting the president offered the donation and agreed to renew the validity of the council.
Thein Sein ordered the formation of the council on Sep 17 last year in order to help create a code of ethics for Burmese media and aid the creation of new media laws.
Kyaw Min Swe, the council’s secretary, said during the ceremony in Rangoon that Thein Sein had offered the $50,000-donation because he “felt sorry” to learn that the council had been self-funded since its inception.
“He recognized our council’s efforts and explained that he had a plan to support us — with no strings attached — through the government budget,” said Kyaw Min Swe, adding, “We didn’t mention a single word about wanting a donation from him.”
Since assuming office in 2011, Thein Sein’s reformist government has lifted many of the restrictions that curtailed Burma’s media during past decades of military rule. Media censorship was abolished and daily newspapers were allowed to start publication in April this year.
New laws concerning media freedom are currently being drafted and discussed, but disagreements have arisen between the government and the interim Press Council, with the latter claiming that the current draft laws could be used to restrict media freedoms.
The interim Press Council has been in talks with the Information Ministry about the new Press Law, but both sides disagree on a range of issues. The bill is due for a first discussion in the Upper House soon.
The Printing and Publishers Law has already been approved by the Lower House, but it has been criticized for giving the government broad powers to issue and revoke publication licenses. The council has threatened to resign if the law is passed in the Upper House.
The Public Service Media Bill, which would regulate Burma’s state-linked media, has been better received by media freedom organizations and local journalists. But it has been criticized for continuing state funding for government newspapers such as The New Light of Myanmar and for not giving sufficient independence to public broadcasters.
Some journalists questioned the council’s decision to accept government funding while it was holding important discussions with the Ministry of Information on these new media laws.
“I don’t understand why they accept this money from the president,” said Thiha Saw, editor-in-chief of English-language newspaper The Myanmar Freedom Daily and a council member. “Our Press Council has been self-funded since the beginning,” he said. “Why did they do this now, when the council is one year old?”
Thiha Thwe, a Burmese journalist working for Japan’s NHK news agency, said accepting the president’s donation would complicate the ongoing discussions between the government and journalists. “Given the situation that we have now with them, there could be misunderstandings,” he said, adding, “If he [Thein Sein] wants to be generous to us, he should have done this before.”
Dr Than Htut Aung, the CEO of the Eleven Media Group, said on the group’s website that the council should have turned down the government money. “Whether the government has a hidden agenda or not [in making the donation], the Press council shouldn’t take that much money from the government, especially during a time when the Press Law is still under debate,” he said.
However, Interim Press Council member Myint Kyaw defended the body’s decision to accept the large donation from the president, adding that it would not undermine the media’s independence.
“Everyone knows that we have financed the council from our own pockets, and that we have struggled. So that’s why we should accept the donation, as there’s no strings attached,” he said.