Media workers lambasted Burmese President Thein Sein’s recent radio address about the Mandalay riots, during which he said that members of the press will face legal punishments if they “endanger” national security with their reports.
According to Thein Sein’s speech on Monday, he singled out recent media reform in Burma as an achievement that makes the country “one of the freest in Southeast Asia”. Yet this supposed freedom comes with certain conditions, he said.
“Amid the political reforms undertaken by the government, there is now freedom of expression in Burma, and the media in this country has become one of the freest in Southeast Asia,” Thein Sein said.
“However, I would like to warn that those who use press freedom to endanger the national security instead of reporting constructively for the country will face effective action under existing laws,” he continued.
This part of Thein Sein’s speech was omitted from the English translation of the president’s speech that appeared in the state-run newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar.
Members of the Burmese press mocked Thein Sein’s speech, and pointed out that such punishments should also be directed at the perpetrators of the Mandalay riots and the authorities who did not stop the violence.
“I would like to ask the president if he also plans to take action against those who are actually instigating the violence,” Wai Phyo, chief editor of the Eleven Daily private newspaper, said, adding: “It doesn’t even require an investigation; you can find out who they are just by looking on Facebook.”
Pho Thaukkyar, a veteran reporter and committee member of the Myanmar Journalists Association, pointed at a recent 7 July statement from the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party that said security forces did nothing to stop the instigators of the Mandalay riots.
Comparing this inaction to the recent interrogation of staff from Bi Mon Tae Nay weekly news journal who reported that NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic leaders had installed a new government, Pho Thaukkyar questioned this double standard.
“The government only seeks action against certain groups or individuals – like the Bi Mon Tae Nay journal’s staff – but turns a blind eye to others,” he said.
The riots in Mandalay broke on 1 July after rumours circulated in Chan Aye Tharzan Township that two Muslim teashop owners raped a Buddhist woman – a claim that has so far gone unsubstantiated.
Local journalists reporting on the riots have attested to being harassed by the public, and thus unable to perform their jobs. This action is a “blatant threat” to Burma’s democratic transition and its press freedom, said a statement by the Interim Press Council on Tuesday.
The Press Council urged the government to ensure the impartiality of its security forces for the safety of all citizens and media workers, and reiterated that it is imperative to take legal action against the perpetrators of last week’s riots.