Myanmar’s military chief on Tuesday agreed to “collaborate” with the media on coverage of issues involving national security during his first-ever meeting with local press representatives.
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing spent more than three hours with seven delegates from the country’s Interim Press Council, an oversight body set up last year in response to pressure to consult the media on new press laws about coverage of military-related news.
The council requested the meeting three months ago to address the issues of limited access to military officials on various issues, including the media’s coverage of battles between government troops and armed ethnic groups.
“Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has promised us that the military will collaborate with us for the [sake of the] country’s democratic process and press freedom,” Zaw Thet Htwe, a member of the press council, told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“We discussed ways to cover military-related news and to create a mechanism for the safety of journalists who cover military news,” he said, without elaborating on any new measures by the military to be open with the media.
Zaw Thet Htwe had told The Irrawaddy online journal before the talks that while covering armed ethnic conflicts, journalists could get statements from ethnic groups, but usually not from the army, and any quotes they did get could only be attributed to “a military officer.”
“We want to confirm [information] with an official army website or a contact person and then write the stories,” he said. “Then it will be safer for us [journalists]. We would also see a more transparent army.”
Arrests and detentions
The meeting on Tuesday came against a backdrop of recent arrests and detentions of journalists that suggest a backsliding on media reform and press freedom in the developing democracy.
In July, four reporters and the chief executive of the weekly journal Unity were each sentenced to 10 years of hard labor in prison on charges of publishing state secrets and trespassing after publishing a Jan. 25 article about an alleged chemical weapons factory in central Myanmar's Magway region.
The government maintained the facility was an ordinary ordnance factory.
Rights groups condemned the sentences, noting that the intimidation and arrest of journalists appeared to be worsening in the former military state, even though official censorship had ended.
Earlier this month, their sentences were reduced to seven years’ imprisonment on appeal.
On Oct. 1, Myanmar’s government said it planned to take legal action against the local Eleven Media Group for publishing an article alleging official corruption in the purchase of a printing press.
The Ministry of Information said the story published in the June 2 edition of the Weekly Eleven News Journal had misstated facts about the deal, although the media company said it had evidence to back its claim.
Zaw They Haw discussed with Min Aung Hlaing and seven other military officers at the meeting the recent sentencing of the Unity journalists and other reporters as well as measures to ensure the safety of those who cover military news.
He also stressed the importance of communication with the army to keep the public informed.
“We told him that journalists are the medium through which people have a right to access information,” he told RFA. “We explained that people … from the military must understand the nature of journalists and should help them.”
During the meeting, Min Aung Hlaing said the army was keen to stop the armed conflict with ethnic groups and bring about peace.
He also said he was “sad” that journalists sometimes referred to his forces as the government military rather than the people’s army.
Under Myanmar’s nearly five decades of military rule, journalists were forbidden to cover certain topics such as corruption, poverty and natural disasters, and government crackdowns landed many reporters in prison.
But the reformist administration of current President Thein Sein, who came to power in 2011, has implemented a series of reforms to push Myanmar towards democracy, including new laws enshrining media freedom.
Reported by Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.