RANGOON — President Thein Sein has sought to assuage concerns about the worsening press freedom situation in Burma during a meeting with the Myanmar Interim Press Council on Friday, telling journalists that he would support the fledgling media sector and that the council could mediate in legal disputes.
The council met with Thein Sein and the President’s Office ministers Aung Min and Tin Naing Thein, Immigration and Population Minister Khin Ye and the new Information Minister Ye Htut, a presidential spokesman whose nomination for the minister’s post was approved by Parliament on Friday.
The council met Thein Sein once before in September 2013 and had requested another meeting to discuss a recent deterioration of the media climate that has raised concerns in Burma and abroad.
In recent weeks, five journalists of the Unity journal were sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment for reporting on an alleged chemical weapons plant. Six journalists and staff members of the Bi Mon Te Nay journal have been detained and charged under a draconian, junta-era law for publishing a story that upset the government.
Special Branch Police have launched vaguely defined investigations into the finances of numerous news publications, while police planned to charge dozens of journalists under Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Act for holding an unauthorized demonstration for press freedom.
On Friday, Thein Sein told the council that he valued the media’s role in Burma’s democratic transition and acknowledged that the council should have a mediating role in dealing with “ethical problems,” state media reported, referring to disputes and government prosecution that could arise from media reports.
The president said he would support “ways to solve ethical problems of journalists through the press council instead of legal action,” The New Light of Myanmar reported. According to the Press Law, adopted in March, disputes arising from media reporting should first be mediated by the council.
In a statement following the meeting, the press council said discussions with the president had resulted in a basic agreement on the need for improving Burma’s media environment and relations between the government and the media.
Thein Sein warned the council, however, that media should be “respectable” and “preventing the abuse of press freedom” and exercise it “harmoniously,” state media reported.
Last week, the president told Parliament that “improper, wedge-driving, unethical and instigating reports by some local and foreign media” had contributed to recurrent outbreaks of anti-Muslim violence in Burma. The claim was widely rejected by local media representatives.
Press council member Zaw Thet Htwe said the president had signaled that he could intervene to protect journalists who face legal prosecution to ensure they receive “fair treatment.”
“The president said he will act fairly within the scope of his authority [to help] those journalists and media practitioners who face prosecution,” he said. “I think the president could withdraw charges of the journalists who are facing charges under Article 18, but he may not able to completely free the Unity Journal journalists, except reduce their sentences.”
Zaw Thet Htwe said the president had also “instructed his ministers to implement a mechanism for access to information for journalists.”
In Burma, there is no freedom of information act and government policies, actions and laws are often shrouded in secrecy, while officials are reluctant to talk to journalists.
Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government introduced sweeping political reforms after taking office in 2011 and lifted long-standing, junta-era media restrictions, such a media censorship and a ban on daily newspapers.