Published on Wednesday, 18 September 2013 15:58
Logos of independent journalist organizations
Since my previous article, "After 25 Years," I have remained fairly silent. Now, I would like to resume the "I will tell the real truth" series, as I have something new to say.
In June of this year, I was questioned by reporters at the Golden Pen Awards ceremony held in Bangkok. They were very interested in my story as an award-winning publisher-cum-journalist. When asked how I became a journalist—after being a doctor, a businessman, and a political activist—I responded: "I became a journalist by accident."
Some journalists take up this profession because they have to earn a living and avoid starvation. Such an explanation inspires anger among some people, but I am not one of them. I began publishing newspapers despite knowing nothing about journalism at the time. I had to do the job myself, as there were no skilled workers available. I had to study the subject myself, and I had to work hard. My media business started with just three workers.
At the beginning, I knew nothing about the art or the ethics of journalism. I had to study the subject and learn by doing. But I have had my own idea since childhood, and it is this: try to live your life according to the principle "I will take only what I deserve." It was a stroke of great fortune for my journalism career that I was able to meet late Saya Ludu U Sein Win, a distinguished journalist in Myanmar. He provided many valuable pieces of advice about how to live as an independent journalist under a harsh military regime. (Though I must confess that I also had some friends then whose support allowed me to survive.)
"Independent" is a word I like instinctively. I prefer to decide what I should think and do. In my life, I have never wanted to hurt anyone as I do not want myself to feel hurt and want to live freely. Saya Ludu U Sein Win's advice helped me to survive as an independent journalist by relying only on income from advertisements and newspaper sales. When my Eleven Media Group was established, I tried to live apart from the rest of the journalistic community. I did not want to fight with others on conflicting points of view. Even though there are principled journalists, there are many others who are easily seduced by money and privilege. They are not like Saya Ludu U Sein Win. And I'd rather not respect them.
I have been invited many times to take part in local journalist associations. Most of the time I said "no," especially to group leaders who have taken financial support directly or indirectly from the government, NGOs, embassies and businessmen. Generally speaking, they cannot avoid such financial support. Most people see those journalists as working together with the Ministry of Information and enjoying the opportunities awarded by it. But most of them take financial support from embassies and international organizations and are dependent on them. Some have no dignity, such as those who absconded to the U.S. with support from the U.S. Embassy. And is it not a matter of "corruption" that some media leaders, who are members of the Press Council, usually take on the corruption agenda as a subject but end up renting cheap office space from the ministries at uncommonly low rental rates? Most cannot resist the money and opportunities.
What I do not agree with is the extension of the financial olive branch. The President's Office under this government established the Central Press Council with government-selected members. Its chairman is Khin Maung Aye, who is also chairman of the Interim Press Council. But the Central Press Council is at odds with many people and has become toothless. Consequently, it has to be restructured.
Meanwhile, Tint Swe from the Ministry of Information proposed a restructuring of the Council with a directive from the President's Office. EMG was also invited to take part. I replied that EMG would join if it is not dependent on the ministry or government support, and if it is formed with respected journalist organizations such as the Myanmar Writers Union and upstanding media companies. In my opinion, the Council needs to push for a new media law to replace the 1962 Press Act. It is understood that, in an organization with many people appointed by the government, those employees are naturally subject to influence. But to earn some dignity, the group must not obtain any government support; only under such condition, I said, would EMG be willing to join.
The interim Press Council was later formed with two thirds of its positions taken by government appointees, and one third by those whom we suggested: the Myanmar Journalist Union (MJU), Myanmar Journalist Network (MJN), and some influential media companies. (They dropped the Myanmar Writers Union just before the Council was formed.) Dr Aung Tun Thet from the President’s Office, Sky Net Company, Forever Company, and Ko Ko Gyi from the 88 Generation Students group were nominated as replacements. Later, Ko Ko Gyi resigned as he felt it was unrelated to his profession. He did the right thing. After the negotiations, the Myanmar Press Council’s core representatives, Wun Tha and Ko Ko, privately met with our new Information Minister to discuss the election of chairman, vice-chairman and members of the new Press Council. The government’s people occupied two thirds and the rest one third of the seats. EMG was represented by Dr Thein Myint. The organization’s budgetary policies and discussions were recorded in the minutes of the meeting. Regarding the controversial media law, the Parliament Speaker and Aung San Suu Kyi openly met with 10 members of the Press Council in front of the media. However, problems began when the president invited only three members to meet with him privately. The secrecy added to the scepticism and lack of transparent conduct.
In my view, accepting a donation from the president did not do much damage to the credibility of the Press Council because it was formed as an interim body from the start and did not represent everyone. However, it is a pity that the Council ran into the problem so soon after earning its credibility. Remember: two-thirds of the Council is comprised of government-appointees. Even if the chairman of the Council could defy the Information Ministry, he cannot defy the president. Moreover, one of his family members is one the richest people in the country. He is also one of the president’s advisors. Under the current government, he has been given many business opportunities. Although he is an honest official, he has been a legal expert under the dictatorship system. He does not have leadership experience in a democratic community.
I now want to focus on the behaviour and attitude of the government toward the media community in the last six months. Unlike the Press Council, I don’t assume that President Thein Sein and the Ministry of Information are different or are separated. They are good and bad cops. That’s why I consider the president’s finances to be the money of the government. The same goes for the Information Ministry: their finances come from the government. Now, there are some different opinions and arguments between the media and the government, and "we don’t need to judge whether or not that money comes with strings attached. How do the public regard the current government? What do they think of the president? Such questions may take a toll on the Press Council."
Now we hear that 19 of the 26 members of the Press Council think the president’s donation of money is unconditional. The Press Council cannot determine whether or not the president’s money has no strings attached. Only the public, and history, will decide.
Some Press Council members have directly or indirectly criticized Aung San Suu Kyi and the 88 leaders for taking donated money from crony companies. As a matter of fact, the life experiences, the courage to resist and overcome difficulties, and the sacrifices of the media members can’t be compared to those of Aung San Suu Kyi and the 88 leaders. But even people like Aung San Suu Kyi and the 88 leaders were criticised. The public wants those whom they admire to be clean in behaviour.
In any case, the battle for freedom of press has nothing to do with the existence and influence of the Press Council. They can’t win the faith or the belief of the public. So how can they carry on? Whatever happens, I maintain the hope and the belief that there will be new generation to lead the Myanmar media—for the sake of the country and the public—with honest determination.
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