Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘It Is Fair to Say the New Govt Is Not Media Friendly’

By The Irrawaddy 24 December 2016

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy. This week, we’ll discuss media sector reforms in 2016. Editor U Khin Maung Soe of the Democratic Voice of Burma [DVB] and Chief Reporter U Swe Win of Myanmar Now will join me for the discussion. I’m Irrawaddy Burmese edition editor Ye Ni.

Ko Swe Win, are you satisfied with the media reforms of the government, which came to power with the slogan, “It’s time for change”?

Swe Win: So far, there have not been the kinds of reforms we expected. We did not expect radical changes. We all understand the situation of our country that it is complicated and difficult to cut bureaucracy. We thought there would be certain positive results, but that hasn’t happened. One good thing is that the government is democratic and I believe it loves transparency. I feel more convinced that I will not be jailed for what I report. Previously, there were military regimes and a quasi-civilian government. During those times, there were more things [issues] that we dared not touch. We now have less fear of reprisal compared to the past. Since it has come to power, we have a feeling of trust in the government as the democratic one we elected.

But considering the recent arrests of some reporters and the death of one reporter, as well as developments since the power transfer, it is fair to say that the information ministry and the new government are not media friendly. The president has never given a press conference. Reporters can’t reach the president at all. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her cabinet only say what they want to say at times appropriate for them, rather than allowing reporters to question them freely. They also do not allow reporters to freely discuss a wide range of subjects with them.

We can’t say at all that the new government is more media friendly than its predecessors. As for the information ministry, it continues to function as military propaganda like it did in the past under military regimes. It removed a Buddhist teachings column from the front page of State-run newspapers. We saw this as an initial step toward change. We were encouraged when seeing editorials critical of the government. But the progress has stopped then. The job of the information ministry should be to directly inform the public about vital information about the entire administration and allow reporters to get public records and analyze them. The ministry has not given reporters that chance. As usual, the new government appointed spokespersons, and it thought this was enough. It is not enough. Such appointments were also made under U Thein Sein’s government.

Khin Maung Soe: Let me interrupt. Just after the new government and the new president were elected, I went to Indonesia. The Indonesian president received us, journalists from Southeast Asia. Among them was Kavi [a Thai editor and expert on Asean affairs], and Ko Kyaw Min Swe and I were Burma delegates. Kavi asked me if our government had not received reporters. We, journalists, represent the public, and we are their independent representatives. We elect ourselves to be representatives of the public. The government needs to meet journalists. We have not yet had a cordial setting in which journalists can speak frankly with the president.  We wonder if Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has become less friendly to us, compared with the past. She was very approachable to reporters in the past. Now, we wonder if she has become unapproachable. Looking back at interactions between NLD [National League for Democracy] spokespersons and the media, I feel like they have become rather unapproachable since they came to power.

YN: These actions are a result of their attitude toward the media, I think. Speaking of policy, U Aung Kyi became the information minister under Thein Sein’s government and he spoke of media reforms. He spoke of transforming the state-owned media to public service media, and he had laws drafted. But the drafts were neglected under his successor U Ye Htut. And now, Dr. Pe Myint has become the information minister and we have not yet heard anything from him about his policy for reforms. What are your thoughts?

KMS: I am wondering if they are having certain difficulties. I mean, the civilian government might have made compromises, and I am wondering if those compromises make it difficult for media reform. U Aung Kyi had drafted some laws, for example, making Sarpay Beikman [a department under the information ministry tasked with broadening the horizons of the general public through publishing books] independent again. Those laws were made public in newspapers as he sought public feedback. But, those draft laws were paid no attention since then. So whenever we get the chance, we mention it. Sarpay Beikman is a real public service department by the Ministry of Information. Great leaders like U Nu, U Thant, and General Aung San stressed the importance of the role it would play. Now, we find that the information ministry is transforming libraries under the Information and Public Relations Department into public service libraries. In the time of U Nu and others, the government worked with a sense of urgency once a timeframe was set. But today, it seems that it is even difficult to enact draft laws.

Speaking of policy, the new government is working on the same policy as U Ye Htut’s, and has not yet revealed any new significant policies. I heard that the new government was reviewing the broadcast laws and that it would take two years. It’s not good that it will take two years to review laws that were drafted in six months by the former government.

We suggested to the government that it should amend necessary provisions quickly and enact by-laws. We also suggested relaxing the government’s control of them if we are to transform state-run media into public service media. The government should participate the least and let civilians participate the most in the process of issuing licenses to independent broadcasters as well as in governing bodies that would monitor the broadcasters. If media are to be controlled under the law, the government should not control them but allow parliament to control them. These are the suggestions I have given. But I don’t know how progress has been.

YN: The government is planning to privatize five TV channels, but as far as we know, your agency DVB is the only one agency that can professionally do news reporting. Taking a look at the broadcasting sector, MRTV [the state broadcaster] is full of entertainment. Will the privatization of TV licenses have an impact on democratization and media reform?

KMS: The previous government planned to transform state-owned media into public service media, but the answer is that audiences are not yet satisfied with the transformation of MRTV. Independent outsiders have gotten a chance to write their opinions in [state-owned] newspapers, and those newspapers are no longer influenced by government perspectives. MRTV now also features some programs that allow civilians to express their opinions. But I think audiences have higher expectations. There is public service media in countries like Japan. The BBC is the world’s largest public service media. We expect our public service media to be similar to the BBC and Thailand’s PBS [Public Broadcasting Service]. But it has not yet met our expectations. The BBC said it was assisting with media development in our country. We are close with BBC staff. Maybe they are downplaying the situation [to avoid saying it is impossible for Burma to achieve public service media]. They said it would take a very long time, and that public service media would not be achieved in the near future.

YN: Ko Swe Win, what do you expect from the privatization of TV channels?

SW: What Ko Khin Maung Soe discussed has made me think of something. It is about our expectations. I accept that there are technical difficulties. I accept that there are bureaucratic difficulties. But I want the information ministry to change its policy. The information ministry should not be the mouthpiece of the government, but the mouthpiece of the public. They don’t have that policy. This will be the big change. They still can’t adopt the policy of representing the public, no matter which government is in office.

Sadly, I found that they still do not have that kind of policy. Because of the lack of such policy, there are problems in content creation. Has the information ministry ever clarified and analyzed parliamentary debates and government’s plans and actions to the public? No. Has it ever criticized Daw Aung San Suu Kyi? Has it ever criticized the NLD-dominated parliament? Has it ever criticized the military?

I can accept it if it says it can’t touch the military or national reconciliation. Now, the new government has come to power, and we all have to strengthen the system. A government does not last forever. The government has to lay a sound foundation for its country. What is happening around the world now is that media is collapsing, and newsrooms are failing in the digital era. Some have said that the Ministry of Information should be abolished. But personally, I don’t think it is a good idea. We would run into big problems if it were abolished. Now, smaller news agencies are subjected to merging and in the case of America, there are many news agencies, but there are only a few owners. Since there are fewer owners, there are fewer opinions. We are facing that danger across the world. Taking lessons from these examples, I would say we need state media. But it should not represent the government; it should represent the people. I am sad that there is still no such a policy.

YN: Thank you for your contributions!