Kyaw Kha: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss the development of private media. Director U Sein Win of the Myanmar Journalism Institute and editor Ko Zeyar Hlaing of Mawkun Magazine will join me for the discussion. I’m Irrawaddy Burmese reporter Kyaw Kha.
Lawmaker U Pe Than of Myebon Township argued in the Lower House on Monday that private media would fade away because state-run media enjoys a monopoly over advertisements. Union minister of information U Pe Myint responded that it was unlikely that private media would die off because of state-run media. U Sein Win, what do you think?
Sein Win: We call Union minister U Pe Myint ‘Saya Pe.’ After a person like Saya Pe became the information minister, we expected that he would introduce reforms in the information ministry and changes to state-run media. We had high hopes for media development in the country. But we were disappointed to hear that he said state-run media did not need to be changed. We had believed that Saya Pe understood that state-run media needed to be changed.
KK: He spoke in favor of state-run media in Parliament.
SS: Yes, he said state-run media did not need to be changed and spoke defensively about its existence. I didn’t expect that and I was upset by it.
KK: What do you think, Ko Zeyar Hlaing?
Zeyar Hlaing: Even under the previous government and in the time of previous information minister U Ye Htut, we publicly said that state-run newspapers should stop publishing. I still cling to that belief today. The government should not run newspapers because those newspapers are published with public funds, and their distribution network uses government assets like vehicles and trains. It is difficult for private media to compete with them.
Another thing private media complains about is advertisements. Most of the advertisements in print media go to state-run media. Our magazine does not get those advertisements. State-run newspapers have a wide distribution network, printers located almost everywhere, and they can sell at a competitive price. Private media is not as financially strong and cannot compete in terms of price.
What are worse are things like name changing announcements. Some government departments do not recognize those changes unless they are announced in state-run newspapers. State-run newspapers therefore basically enjoy a monopoly. I have said before that state-run newspapers should no longer exist and I repeat it now.
KK: U Pe Myint said state-run newspapers should exist for the elected government to inform the public about what it is doing. What is your view on that?
SW: My understanding is that state-run newspapers are not government newspapers. No matter which government is in office in the country, it has nothing to do with newspapers. If the state-run newspaper only reports government news, then the country no longer needs it. The public can be informed through other means. The government can set up another information mechanism that is not a newspaper.
For example, other countries have communications departments in their ministries to inform the public. We could have a communications unit that is not the information ministry. The information ministry is no longer needed.
At present there are 39 newspapers. Most of them are local newspapers [published regionally] and departmental newspapers published by various departments. I’m afraid the number of departmental newspapers is more than that of local newspapers.
Of the nationwide newspapers, three are state-run and the rest are private newspapers—approximately less than 10. Two state-run papers—Kyemon and Myanma Alinn—reap profits every year. As far as I understand, the profit is a seven-digit amount in US dollars.
But other newspapers are struggling. Except one or two, all of the other newspapers operate at a loss. Publishers of those newspapers have to cover operational costs with profits from other businesses.
A democratic society can be defined by ideological pluralism. In a democratic society, the government has the responsibility to support media diversity. Only then can it be a functioning democracy. If it suppresses it [media diversity], then we assume that the government is bad. So, the government has to think about what it can do to strengthen mainstream media.
In the case of our country, the government cannot afford to provide funding for it. But it has to find other ways to help strengthen it. Regarding the media, the weakest point of the current government is that it does not have a media development strategy. Even the previous government had one, although it did not or could not materialize it in its entirety.
The current government does not have a media development strategy and must design one. Saya Pe’s strong point is literature. He worked to develop literature in the country by creating streets where books are sold. I like this. But as for media development, he gets poor marks. I mention him because he is the minister—the most responsible person in the information ministry. I am sorry to have to single him out. But, he earns very low marks in regards to his media development work and he needs to fix this as quickly as possible.
KK: The presentation of current state-run newspapers is not much different from previously. For example, there is not balanced reporting about ethnic armed groups. They just publish statements from one side [the army]. When [prominent lawyer] U Ko Ni was assassinated recently, private papers published the news on the front page because it was in the interest of the people. But state-run newspapers published news about the State Counselor growing trees on front page, which drew criticism. Ko Zeyar Hlaing, what do you have to say regarding this?
ZYH: The views of people change according to their positions. What we should understand is government is government. Newspapers that are published by the government will only be government newspapers.
[State-run newspaper’s failure to report about] U Ko Ni was noticeable, but there was a case before that went unnoticed—the Bagan earthquake. People were also interested in that. Private media had cover stories about it, about how our cultural heritage [was damaged]. People wanted to know about it, but state-run newspapers did not report on it.
Saya Pe has said that state-run newspapers are needed to publish news about the government. So, we can only expect news about the government from them. But I have a question. Can people get the information that they want from those newspapers?
I usually say in interviews with journalists that those newspapers remain a propaganda machine. And if you ask me if the quality of the newspapers has improved, my frank answer is that only the players have changed. Policy hasn’t and news stories are still published according to protocol—news of the top decision-makers appears on the front page of state-run papers. This upsets me.
I thought that even if state-run newspapers were not shut down that they would be transformed into public service media. But this didn’t happen. What’s worse is that there are still many departments that refuse to answer questions from private journalists who interview them in line with media by-laws. The current government in some cases has turned a blind eye to existing laws.
Government media has an advantage in covering events. This is not fair play. They are not even competing with us on equal ground; they are taking the upper hand. This is more obvious for broadcast media, as they get better positions to shoot pictures from. And we have to cover Parliament via them. This is proof that they are killing private media. That’s why we have called for shutting down state-run newspapers.
If we divide the country into estates, we are called the fourth estate. But why is the government, the administrative power, entering into the fourth estate? If they want to inform the public, they should inform them through communication officers. And private media could provide balanced reporting based on the information.
People have more trust in such reports. It is quite rare that people trust state-run newspapers. In the past, it was difficult to interview government departments. International news agencies such as AP, AFP, Reuters and local private media referred to state-run newspapers only when we were not able to interview departments. Because we assume that the state-run newspapers are a government mouthpiece, we don’t expect that they will be able to provide the information that people want to know. Why should those newspapers, which are published with public funds, be used only for spreading government propaganda? This is our point of view.
KK: Currently, as far as I know, state-run newspapers Myanma Alinn and Kyemon have a daily circulation around 320,000. There is quite a large gap between them and private media. Frankly speaking, private media are really at risk. Both private dailies and weeklies are at risk. Under these circumstances, what should be done to strengthen private media?
SW: Printing costs need to be addressed for private media, and problems with distribution. In countries, there are distribution mechanisms. For example, in Thailand, private media can put their publications at 7-11 stores. But there is no such thing here. We have to create on our own mechanism or put our publications at bookstores.
Transportation costs are very high. Private media have to distribute primarily by car, as they can’t afford to use air transport. Here, the government could provide subsidies. It could help arrange distribution.
The government has many printers and it could offer printing at lower prices in order to reduce the cost. And it could streamline the procedures for importing newsprint to reduce spending. The government could do these things without spending its funds.
As Ko Zeyar has pointed out, because there were only state-run newspapers for many years, people have put advertisements only in them. They were gradually convinced that advertisements were not legal unless they were in state-run papers. The government has to abolish that policy. Only then will advertisements go to private media.
We are exercising a market economy but if the government wants to compete, it should compete with its own money, not with public funds. Isn’t that right? Currently, the government uses the state’s assets. The government must reform state-run media and downsize some of their operations. Yes, it will be difficult to downsize the staff. But it must be done, even if it is difficult. The government came to power saying that it would make changes, but not defending [the changes].
KK: Thank you for your contributions!