Ko Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy. We are going to
talk about the dwindling numbers of newspapers and journals at newsstands during the National League for Democracy-led government term. I have invited U Ko Ko (RIT) of Democracy Today and the Yangon Times, and Ko Zaw Thet Htwe of Tomorrow and the Healthcare Journals. I am Ye Ni, the editor of the Irrawaddy Burmese edition.
Ko Ye Ni: When we look at the current situation, the People’s Cause Journal formerly published by Union Minister U Pe Myint stopped printing recently. And the latest newspaper that disappeared from newsstands was Thandawsint. I would like to ask why are these newspapers vanishing one by one? I’ll ask Saya U Ko Ko first. Is this because of social media or is it market competition or something else?
U Ko Ko: Is it because of the popularity of social media like Facebook? I would have to say both yes and no. Yes because online media does play a part in the decline of print media but it cannot be blamed entirely on that. There are many reasons that print media suffers. As you just said, it faces fierce competition from other media.
It also has to do with Myanmar’s current economic situation. The survival of print media depends largely on advertising. When the economy is good, businessmen can spend more on ads. The number of advertisements has fallen sharply. The number of ads in print media has fallen about 15 percent this year, according to advertising agencies. Although that goes for the entire industry, it is estimated that the print media private sector lost 50 to 60 percent of its advertisements this year. The private sector cannot compete with state-run media in terms of price and market. We also cannot blame businessmen who advertise in state media because they have to take circulation and distribution into consideration. So, both social media and the economy are contributing to the gradual decline of private newspapers.
Ko Ye Ni: As U Ko Ko just said, print media has to compete with state media for market share. As they complete in terms of advertising, prices and logistics, they are not on a level playing field. Has this been discussed with the minister of information? As far as we know, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi plans to discuss the economic situation with businesspeople. But it is unclear if anyone from the media industry will participate. How should the government help the print media industry?
Zaw Thet Htwe: We have learned that the state counselor will meet with businesspeople on Aug. 26 and 27, but we don’t know if anyone from the media will be there. In my opinion, they should be. We need to ask what the government’s attitude toward private media in the democratic transition
We have three questions. Will the government allow print media to survive or will it kill it? Will it leave it in place as is to save face with the international community? And what path should we take?
We are in a crisis because the US dollar has appreciated and the price of paper is rising. Printing costs have gone up and businesses can no longer afford to advertise. Our advertising income has fallen. We have had to reduce our workforce, lower our paper grade and reduce the number of pages. If the government continues to neglect the problem, they are in essence killing private media. If they desire to help us survive, we could discuss methods at the upcoming meeting.
Ko Ye Ni: Saya U Ko Ko, as you just said, when a country’s economy declines, as does advertising revenue.
However, The Irrawaddy, despite being online media, also relies on advertisements, which we have gotten less of than expected. Income from advertising is falling. The problem is not just limited to print media. Is television suffering the same fate or are they profitable at this time?
U Ko Ko: Every sector of the media industry is doing poorly, but to a different extent. Print media was in the intensive care unit and it was an emergency. It has been given oxygen, but its charts rise and fall unpredictably. Everyone worries that it will stop breathing.
Broadcast media is being treated at an outpatient center. Doctors are examining it but we aren’t yet sure if a remedy will be prescribed or if it will also be sent to the hospital.
This is an allegory but broadcast media does have to go to the doctor, because it also relies on advertising revenue. Broadcast media has to spend more money than both print and online media. The problem facing this industry is that advertisers tend to choose which channels to use based on content but not by brand. If a program has a large audience, advertisers put all of their money there. When that program ends, the money follows the audience. The difference is that advertisers choose broadcast media based and content but print and online media based on brand.
The problem is, which comes first, the chicken or the egg?
Without money, we resort to producing low-cost programs. It is unlikely that people will be interested in these programs, making it unlikely that we will have a large audience or receive advertisements. As a result, we don’t have the money to produce quality programs.
Ko Ye Ni: Do businesses solely advertise in entertainment, as opposed to education or news programs?
U Ko Ko: No. But this is the case in programs that discuss politics because people are afraid to advertise during these programs and worry that they could become scapegoats.
They shun these programs that they see as critical or attacking and they invest in entertainment in all of the media sectors.
The problem is that content covered by the Fourth Estate does not receive funding. This funding is in crisis.
Ko Ye Ni: What would be the worst-case scenario if independent private media withered away?
Zaw Thet Htwe: It is the government that won the hearts and minds of the people. We thought that we would be able to enjoy more independence, freedom, transparency and prosperity. With a better economy, we would be better informed regarding international media also. We expected so much and we have been wrong so far.
Part of this has to do with the government’s attitude toward private media. At times, it has made them tense and they have even taken legal action and detained journalists. We understand that we cannot criticize the Tatmadaw because it is dangerous but we are concerned that we are unable to criticize the civilian government as well. With the economy declining and the US dollar appreciating, our chance of survival decreases even more – with Rays of Light and Thandatsint being just some of the victims.
U Ko Ko: I also had to shut down Flower News.
Zaw Thet Htwe: So, journals that had been in existence for about two decades have. Doors to freedom of expression have been closed one after another. Even as we discuss this, more will close.
Will this continue? Are we not raising such issues because we are losing interest? No. In a democratic transition, it is necessary that freedom of experience be allowed, with the government and Parliament promoting this expression. If they respond by reverting to survival of the fittest, the transition will backslide and we will remain in conflict as usual.
Ko Ye Ni: Can we find a solution to the problem?
U Ko Ko: We are looking for ways and means to overcome this. When we hold meetings, some people think we are launching attacks on state-run media or the Ministry of Information. But we are not asking them to shut down state-run media; we want to survive together. We are seeking a win-win situation and we want to work on ways to cooperate in order to resuscitate print media.
Ko Ye Ni: What do you think?
ZTH: As Saya Ko Ko said, we will not cling to print media. We will move to digital media as soon as possible like the international community and neighboring countries. But we had to have independent media as soon as the transition began. At that time, we weren’t prepared to go digital. Human and financial resources were not strong enough. We needed a transition period and we were simply trying to survive.
But how can we survive? We discussed this at one time with the former information minister. He stated that all state media would be public service media and would not go commercial in the future. Public service media is nonprofit. This would help strengthen private media that does rely on profits. However, the current government has not adopted this position. At that time, we did not approve the idea of public service media because there was still a lot that needed to be discussed. So, we continue on in the ways of the past.
As a result, newspapers that are being published with public funds at a loss have big circulations, wide distribution and trust. We are struggling and publishing in a limited area. Our logistics are weak. We do not have the ability to compete. How can we solve the problem? Should we meet with the government? They will say they cannot provide funds for us, as they are the government. We are not asking them for money. There are many ways they could do us a favor. They could lower the taxes on paper that we import for the public. In addition, private businesses can advertise anywhere – Myanmar Times, Democracy Today. This is their choice and we do not blame them. But more than 30 government ministries issue public notifications such as announcements of gem emporiums, trade fairs and tender invitations. They could place these in both state media and private media that meets their criteria. Then we could survive. This would be one solution.
Ko Ye Ni: Thank you for your contributions.