Ten foreign journalists working with publications based in European and Western countries have given up their membership of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) South Asia, in wake of its president S Venkat Narayan’s three-day Myanmar visit. Narayan was in the Southeast Asian country from June 6 to June 9 to share his “perspective” on “editorial content” with a military junta-led newspaper.
Some of the “enraged” journalists who quit FCC work with The Economist, Washington Post, Financial Times and Agence France-Presse. In their collective letter to the FCC, the journalists said Narayan’s visit had “irrevocably destroyed” their faith in the FCC as an organisation that can represent their interests. “We resign our membership with immediate effect”.
Some FCC members, who spoke with Newslaundry, said the Myanmar government was trying to legitimise its human rights violations and stifling press freedom on account of the visit.
However, Narayan told Newslaundry these concerns were “presumptuous” and “preposterous”. He said that he was visiting Myanmar in his personal capacity, and as a journalist with 50 years of experience, on being invited by a private businessman, who owns 49 percent stake in the junta-run The Global New Light of Myanmar, for his “professional inputs”. The three-day trip was paid for by the newspaper.
“I just met the editorial board and advised them how a newspaper should be run and how events should be treated.” Narayan claimed that he was unaware that the newspaper is run by the junta military, which had unseated the country’s elected government, jailed Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and has been accused of gross human rights violations. He also added that he did not inform the FCC board about his visit.
During his visit, Narayan also met Myanmar’s ministers of foreign, commerce, international cooperation and information departments — an interaction which, according to him, was arranged by the newspaper and was not a part of his itinerary.
Meanwhile, the journalists’ letter informing the FCC about their resignation, said: “As members of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of South Asia (FCC), we were shocked and embarrassed to learn that the club’s President, Venkat Narayan, visited Myanmar last week, consulted for an organisation that disseminates the views of the country’s military junta, and participated in meetings with junta representatives that enabled his visit to be portrayed in a manner that brings the name of the FCC into disrepute.”
It further read: “We deplore the notion that the president of a group that is meant to represent journalists and stand up for media freedom would consult for and accept remuneration in kind from a propaganda organ of a regime that has jailed 70 journalists and is ranked 173 out of 180 countries in the latest press-freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders.”
The journalists who have quit FCC are Aletta André (Nederlandse Omroep Stichting), Sebastien Berger (AFP), Sébastien Farcis (Radio France Internationale), Sean Gleeson (AFP), Laura Höflinger (Der Spiegel), Peter Hornung (ARD German Radio), Oliver Mayer (ARD German Radio), John Reed (Financial Times), Lena Schipper (The Economist) and Gerry Shih (Washington Post). Some of them expressed their “shock” and “horror” on Twitter.
What triggered the controversy was a news report published in The Global New Light of Myanmar on June 8 with a photo of Narayan with international cooperation minister U Ko Ko Hlaing. The caption and news report described Naryan as the FCC-South Asia president. The report said: “The two (Narayan and Hlaing) exchanged views on the latest developments in Myanmar and efforts of the Myanmar Government to ensure peace and stability in the country as well as matters related to the enhancement of cooperation between the two countries in the areas of trade and investment, connectivity and media development.”
A clipping of the newspaper The Global New Light of Myanmar's June 8 report on FCC-South Asia president S Venkat Narayan meeting Myanmar's international cooperation minister U Ko Ko Hlaing.
Narayan shrugged the news report’s description of him. “I am not responsible for how the media or a news agency decides to describe me to gain legitimacy. The allegation (by foreign correspondents) is preposterous. But I have no control over that (how his designation was used).”
Newslaundry has learnt that a Myanmar delegation had in March — a month before Narayan’s election as president — approached the FCC seeking its help for the newspaper’s editorial content. The request was shot down. Narayan claimed he was not aware of such a delegation.
One FCC member also confirmed that Narayan had not informed the board members about his visit to Myanmar. “If the Taliban invites him tomorrow for his professional input for their propaganda newspaper, would he go there too?”
“I would simply say no,” Narayan said. But he skirted the question why he would choose Myanmar over Afghanistan — which are both known to curb press freedom, besides being infamous for human rights violations.
On the nature of his interaction with the four ministers, Narayan said he emphasised that elections be held, democracy be restored, Aung San Suu Kyi be freed and the media be allowed to report from the country. He said he would welcome such interactions as it will help journalists to get information about the functioning of Myanmar’s government and their treatment of their people. The Myanmar government or its embassy did not immediately respond to the queries sent to them by Newslaundry.
Another FCC member pulled no punches. “It is stupid to say that he had gone there as an individual when he is the FCC president. A public position comes with an additional baggage of not doing certain things. There are more don’t’s than dos for somebody holding a public position.”
Emphasising that all 10 journalists, who resigned from the FCC, are from the West, Narayan said, “Maybe journalists from Asian countries like Japan have a better understanding of our part of the world.” The journalists’ body had 113 members with voting rights until March. Of them, 23 were foreigners, including the 10 who have resigned.
Meanwhile, a member of the governing council of the FCC, who also condemned the visit, urged foreign journalists to have more participation in the organisation. He referred to the resignations as a “knee jerk reaction” and said it would “not solve the matter”. “There are a lot of other good things that the club does for its members.”
In a meeting held by the FCC on June 13 over Narayan’s Myanmar visit, the board decided that Narayan will remain as its president for now. The board was reportedly satisfied with his explanation that he undertook the visit in his personal capacity.
Speaking to Newslaundry ahead of the meeting, on the question of whether he would resign, Narayan had said: “If the board decides, I will… This is not a paying job. This position means nothing to me and nor does it add anything to my stature.”
Narayan had served as the FCC president from 1999 to 2002, and 2016 to 2021 as well.
Update at 12 pm, June 13: FCC has 113 members with voting rights and not 100. This has been corrected.
Update at 11 am, June 14: This report has been updated with the details of the FCC meeting held on June 13.