YANGON — Last week was a time of mixed feelings for local journalists. They were saddened by the news of a military plane crash with 122 people on board, and both insulted and bemused by comments made by members of the country’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party.
Let’s start with the comedy.
During a Q&A session at a three-hour press conference at the Yangon Division government office, Yangon Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein lectured reporters and took credit for freedom of the press as it stands today (doubtful!) instead of answering questions about reforms his government has undertaken in the city. To the amusement of the reporters, he said:
“You journalists should not project your anger. We are the ones who went prison to make way for the strong press you enjoy today. At that time, no paper dared to write about politics. We paid a big price for the current situation,” referring to his 14 years as a political prisoner.
As far as I know, the chief minister is the first person, among the hundreds of political prisoners across the country, who publicly took credit for his sacrifice. Even the late veteran journalist Hanthawaddy U Win Tin, who spent 19 years in prison for his political activism, never uttered a word about his jail time contributing to media freedom in the country. I wonder what Uncle Win Tin’s reaction would have been if he were alive today.
Nobody can deny the fact that the changes seen in Myanmar today are a result of collective popular movements since 1988. But those involved in the activities have not come out to say: “We did this.” It was a labor of love and the participants had no need for self-praise.
Even Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said she felt embarrassed to say that she had sacrificed [for the country] when choosing what she wanted to do.
What journalists found even more entertaining was that U Phyo Min Thein’s comments came while the controversial Article 66(d) of the country’s Telecommunications Law threatens Myanmar’s media. Ironically, as the chief minister praised his sacrifices, the editor and a contributor to The Voice Daily were both in detention after the military filed a lawsuit against them for a satirical piece it claimed was defamatory.
On the same day, Myanmar’s media industry was insulted by the NLD’s spokesperson.
NLD spokesman U Win Htein called journalists “crows” when asked for why the party refused to allow a party lawmaker to question the government over Article 66(d) in Parliament last week.
“This issue is not big enough to damage the country. Don’t have a crow mentality,” the party’s spokesperson said, seemingly teasing the reporters about flocking to campaign against 66(d) now that the law had affected journalists.
But this wasn’t a joke. It was the third attempt by U Win Htein to verbally abuse journalists in two consecutive years. The first and second attacks were toward individuals, while this one was directed at the entire media industry.
Since the arrest of The Voice Daily’s editor and columnist, journalists across the country have embarked on a campaign condemning the government and military for using Article 66(d) to sue the media when they are not happy with its reports. The journalists went to U Win Htein to do their job – to ask questions – which the party blocked.
But the solidarity of the journalists seems to upset U Win Htein. In his eyes, they are “crows,” campaigning against 66(d) because their colleagues are in distress. He lectured reporters about the failings of this mentality without commenting on the rise of politically motivated cases filed under 66(d).
It was an insult to call local journalists crows. It was the local media that followed Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the then-NLD leader, throughout her campaigns in the 2012 by-election and the 2015 general election. They stood by the NLD to the extent that onlookers wondered whether they would have the guts to criticize the party when it came to power.
It is okay that U Win Htein does not acknowledge the journalists’ long-standing party support. But he does not have the right to call them crows, comparing them to animals. Even the former junta did not insult journalists in this way. It is shameful for the NLD and its government that the party’s spokesperson fails to respect the media and in turn, the democratic norms that the party champions.
At the same time, it is also disappointing to see Myanmar’s ruling party spokesperson behave like a man on the street. Last month, he recklessly commented that some military organizations might be behind spreading rumors of President U Htin Kyaw’s resignation. When the military condemned this, he retreated by saying it was just ‘a slip of tongue.’ Daw Aung San Suu Kyi should either temper him or replace him for the sake of the party’s reputation. Either action could save her from future embarrassment.