RANGOON — Burma President Thein Sein used a regular address to the nation Tuesday to warn the country’s nascent private media against making “groundless” personal attacks.
In his monthly speech broadcast repeatedly on state radio, Thein Sein lauded efforts to develop and unite Burma since his quasi-civilian government took power in 2011. But he also appeared to hit out at the media, which has enjoyed increasing freedom as the country opens up.
“I would like to urge the media industry to keep a strict adherence to media ethics and discipline of the media, and refrain from producing groundless news and making personal attacks through the media, [at a time] when we are promoting freedom of media, which is a necessary thing for the democratic transition period,” he said.
“In this reforming period, we should all unite to work together without making personal attacks and using media freedom as a tool.”
A senior official close to Thein Sein, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the president was suggesting that personal or political rivalries were being played out through the media.
“Behind the scenes are some people who are facing difficulties because of reform process and open business environment,” the source said.
“Some of them are hardliners trying to attack leading reformists because of interests including politics, religious, business and the 2015 election.”
The official said the president accepts that there will be some resistance to change, but wants the media to be “responsible” during the transition.
The message to be cautious will cause concern among some journalists in an industry only briefly out of censorship. Only in March were the first private daily newspapers in decades granted licenses to publish in Burma.
Thiha Saw, editor of the only English-language daily publishing at present, the Myanma Freedom Daily, said some local newspapers have been taking advantage of the new freer publishing environment to write poorly sourced stories about the affairs of former leaders.
“Some journals are publishing what seem to be personal attacks on people. They are all looking to increase their circulations by publishing some unethical stories,” he said.
“But I don’t think the President is trying to influence the media industry through his message.”
Zay Yar Myat Khine, deputy chief editor of the Monitor journal, said it is the media’s job to expose the mistakes of leaders.
“I want to ask the president that what is the meaning of ‘groundless’ sources, and what is the standard of media freedom that he believes we have?” he said.
Although Thein Sein was not specific about which media outlets he was addressing, last month, local media reported that the Burma government has stashed US$11 billion in five foreign bank accounts, citing as a source Jelson Garcia of the Bank Information Center. Some local reports misidentified Garcia as a World Bank employee, and the government soon held a press conference to address the story, insisting that only $7 billion was kept in overseas bank accounts.
“He should not criticize all media, he should mention which ones are doing this,” said Zay Yar Myat Khine.
“Whatever he means—the government’s $11 billion bank accounts case, or whatever—we will have to cover the news.”