Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! Members of the newly elected Myanmar Press Council recently took their oaths before President U Win Myint. [State Counselor] Daw Aung San Suu Kyi hosted a dinner for them. The event has magnified some concerns among journalists, who doubt whether Daw Aung San Suu Kyi still values press freedom as she once did. U Zaw Thet Htwe, chairman of the Myanmar Journalists Union and publisher of Tomorrow Journal, joins me to discuss this issue. I’m The Irrawaddy Burmese editor Ye Ni.
As you know, since the dinner there has been much discussion on social media about the relationship between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the Myanmar Press Council. While press freedom is already under threat in Myanmar, concerns have arisen that she will renege on her pledges in this area. After [Daw Aung San Suu Kyi] won the 2015 election, she hosted a dinner in honor of journalists. It appears that this warm relation is getting icy. Why do you think this has happened?
Zaw Thet Htwe: Looking back at the recent past, in the period after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest but before the  election, local media played an important role. Before she became state counselor, the media could preach the message to the whole world that she was a democracy icon. The media and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi were closely connected. The media and the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had been inextricably linked since the party re-registered and contested the 2012 by-election. Some people criticized journalists for this, saying they lacked journalistic ethics, and that they used [their positions] to lobby for a political party. The promotion of the NLD by the media was so effective that the party won a landslide victory in the 2015 election. As you said, the party hosted a dinner to thank journalists. But since the NLD took office, the media’s responsibility has been to monitor the performance of individual ministers and assess whether lawmakers were actually delivering in Parliament what the people asked of them. There is greater freedom now compared to previous eras in which journalists were only allowed to praise the government, so journalists have analyzed the ruling party, but the party has resisted this. Cracks started to appear in the relationship between the ruling party and the media as the latter dug up inside stories about the party, and [published the] resultant leaks—and also because the party often made headlines due to its newsmaker [NLD spokesperson] Uncle U Win Htein. The term of the Myanmar Press Council is three years. A new council emerged while President U Htin Kyaw was in office. So, they took their oaths before him. But taking a look back at those three years, the council didn’t play any noticeable role. Journalists even asked what the council was doing, as it failed to build capacity [of journalists], handle citizen journalists outside Yangon, [respond to] propaganda about media ethics, or lobby NLD lawmakers to amend the Media Law. Some claim that the council has been ignored [by the government] over the past three years. At the same time, journalists were detained or arrested, and the ruling party has confronted the media over its criticisms. So, we can conclude that the relationship between the media and the NLD is icy.
YN: I agree that the government and the media are always at odds. This is natural.
ZTH: It has always been thus, throughout history.
YN: We don’t see it as a problem, rather as something that strengthens democracy. At the dinner for the newly elected Press Council, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi compared the mainstream media with social media. Some journalists asked why she compared the two, which are different in nature. We live in the age of social media. Anyone can be a “journalist”. Today, anyone who witnesses an incident can take a picture or video of it and post it on social media without needing an editor. What is the role of mainstream media and journalism in the age of social media? Daw Aung San Suu Kyi asked this at the dinner. What is your answer?
ZTH: As a journalist who has long worked in the print media, it was disappointing to hear Daw Aung San Suu Kyi say she is interested to see competition between social media and mainstream media. The explosive growth of social media has had a serious impact on the mainstream media, and it hurts us to accept it before we are ready. We have to follow media ethics, rules and regulations, and must show responsibility and accountability. Our understanding was that we would institutionalize the media [as a strong Fourth Estate] based on those values. We underestimated the impact of social media. In 2015, we print media had wide circulations, and advertisers queued up to place advertisements for a whole year, six months or three months. Again, in the case of my journal, the day after it was published, people would phone us and talk about a particular article. The reception desk was always busy replying to their questions. If the receptionist could not answer, one of the editors had to reply. But today, within a very short span of three years, the circulation of print media—journals and newspapers—has declined by 50 percent. This means readership has declined by half. Now, big advertisers only spend a small amount of their ad budgets on us, and spend a large amount on social media platforms. So, our ad revenue has declined too. And no matter how hot the issues we cover—protests or strikes—there are no longer complaints. Nobody bothers to phone us and complain about this or that report or article. This shows that readers have changed the way they respond—from reading a publication and complaining over the phone to reading them on their mobile devices and responding via digital platforms. So, rather than saying it is interesting to see competition between social and mainstream media, we can say that we are already in a defensive position.
YN: There is no way to stop the rapid advance of information technology. Despite this, the public service ethic that journalists adhere to will never change. To what extent do you think the overall mainstream media—print and broadcast—have been able to reform under new Information Minister U Pe Myint?
ZTH: Within a few days of the NLD government taking office, the background color of the [government-run] Kyemon Daily was changed to red. We were hopeful, assuming that [it was a sign that] U Pe Myint was launching reforms. We expected that a state-run newspaper would transform into a newspaper that reports on the feelings and the heartbeat of the people. But three years later, the newspaper is almost the same as the one published under [former President] U Thein Sein’s administration. It propagandizes the message of the government and discreetly covers up the shortcomings and weak points of the government. Frankly speaking, there has been no newspaper reform. On the other hand, there have been some changes. As U Pe Myint is a former writer, he is keen on one thing—he has organized children’s literature festivals in major towns in the regions and states. So, there has been an impact on children’s literature, and on literature in general. Such festivals send a message to students who attend and browse the books that they can find valuable knowledge not only on mobile phone screens, but also in books. Previously, only writers who praised the ruling elite were given national literature awards. There was a policy not to give such awards to anti-government writers, no matter how aesthetically pleasing their works. This is no longer the case. Now, award-winners are chosen by the board [formed by the Information Ministry], based solely on their aesthetic merits. These two are significant improvements.
YN: Thank you for your contributions!