Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘It’s Unacceptable That the Ministry Competes with Private Newspapers Using the State Budget’

By The Irrawaddy 20 February 2016

Thalun Zaung Htet: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy. This week, we’ll discuss the role of the media and the challenges facing it as the National League for Democracy (NLD) prepares to come to power. Ko Zaw Thet Htwe from the Myanmar Journalist Union and Ko Thiha Thway from NHK will join me for the discussion. I’m Irrawaddy Burmese editor Thalun Zaung Htet.

Before talking about the role of the media in a new political order, I want to note one point—the media has been restricted in covering the new Parliament session that convened on Feb 1. I myself was there to cover the session and found too many “no media access” areas and “no interview” areas across the Parliament building, which were nonexistent in the first Parliament. The NLD government has not yet come to power, but we have started to see signs of restrictions on media. Ko Thiha Thway, you also covered the Parliament session. What do you think of it?

Thiha Thway: The problem can be divided into two parts—one is the problem between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the media, and the other, between the Parliament and the media. These two problems are intertwined. But in fact, they should be handled separately. The problem between the Parliament and the media has existed since the time of the first Parliament when Global Post Journal presented a photo in which a military representative was casting a proxy vote. Then, reporters were no longer allowed to enter the “interpreter booth” from which they monitored and covered the Parliament session over the past three, four years.

TZH: The restriction was in response to the article “Multi-Handed Persons…” [featured in Global Post]…

TT: Since then, we haven’t been able to monitor the inside of the Parliament chamber. We haven’t been allowed to use the interpreter booth and have had to cover the session through TV. Still, we can freely interview [ministers] outside the chamber. Usually, it is difficult for journalists to meet ministers. But ministers have to come to the Parliament when asked to do so. So the Parliament is a very important place for us since we can meet, interview and take photos of ministers there.

Regarding the problem between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the media, during the election period, reporters crammed into the polling station where Daw Aung San Suu Kyi cast her vote and that was a mess. I’ve noticed that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has tended to avoid the media since then. She can’t stand the light from flashguns and seems to be worried that she might be harmed in the crowd. And she tries to regulate the media for fear that exaggerated speculation [on the post for president] by journalists may harm the political path she is taking.

Since the new Parliament convened, journalists have tried to interview and take photos of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi because of their interest [in what shape her government might take]. But she does not want to reveal any information to the media for the time being, and the new military representatives are not yet ready to talk to the media. Because of these factors, the Parliament has imposed restrictions. A space is designated for media personnel to interview [lawmakers and ministers]. However, it is difficult to get someone you want to interview to that box. It is even more difficult to get ministers to that box. They wouldn’t be happy to be there. So we’ve lost a chance to carry out some reporting. We don’t know how to solve this.

TZH: Designation of such areas has largely affected reporting. The NLD said that there are also restricted areas in other international parliaments. But the media have complained that hundreds of journalists now have to cover Parliament through a TV, thereby restricting their ability to interview freely. Is this because the NLD does not understand the nature of media very well, or because it does not know how to handle the media?

Zaw Thet Htwe: It seems that the NLD does not even have a strategic plan for media flow. The Parliament is an integral part of the country. There should at least be a media center in the Parliament. In international parliaments, there is a well-equipped media center with Internet access and a power supply. Generally speaking, the NLD needs something like this to facilitate the flow of information. The fact that it has restricted the news is a negative political sign. In [Burma], there has hardly been an institutionalized system, and usually, the lower-level workers take actions that hinge on the feelings of the top leader.

For instance, in the time of the late General Ne Win, his subordinates would issue instructions and regulations based on his feelings. This also happened in the time of General Than Shwe and President U Thein Sein. The democratic government is said to have emerged now. But then, instructions and regulations emerge depending on the feelings of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. It is natural that she might be annoyed being followed by so many journalists. However, a responsible NLD would understand that the media can’t be restricted. Once they adopt rules and regulations for the flow of information and the managing of the media, this problem will be solved. If no action is taken, because Daw Aung San Suu Kyi refuses to say something, this would likely breed problems. I think the NLD should handle this and also set up a media center in the Parliament.

TZH: The NLD government has not yet officially taken power, but the media has started to lose their rights after an NLD-dominated Parliament convened. At present, NLD lawmakers do not answer questions posed by the media. They evade it. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has released a statement that no one other than her is allowed to talk about the transfer of power. So lawmakers dare not answer these sorts of questions. It has therefore been very difficult for the media to get news.

Yet the media represent the people, and they ask questions on behalf of the people on issues that people want to know about. So the problems we have mentioned during this conversation will continue if the NLD does not understand that journalists are working on behalf of people.

Let’s talk about the role of the Ministry of Information in the new government. To start, there have been suggestions that ministry should be abolished. What do you think about this, Ko Thiha Thway, about whether the Ministry of Information should be abolished?

TT: In fact, every government should keep a propaganda department. When industries were nationalized during the time of the Socialist Program Party, newspapers were also nationalized, so all the newspapers became government-run newspapers. Since then the government has used newspapers for propaganda. Consequently, the Ministry of Information has gradually grown up. I think those newspaper houses should be privatized. If no private businessman is willing to take them, those propaganda newspapers should be downgraded—the budget and workforce of those newspaper houses should be reconsidered. The [new] government can reduce unnecessary things, just keep the required workforce and change the ministry into an information department, because those newspapers spend a huge amount of budgets. At a time when free media is about to be established, it’s unacceptable that the ministry competes with private newspapers using the state budget, rather than encouraging them.

Private media outlets are having a hard time. They are also facing other challenges. At a time when print media is declining and online media has become more popular, it is hard for print media to compete with government-run newspapers, which are invulnerable to financial loss. When the NLD government comes to power, I think it will reduce all the unnecessary things and just keep an appropriate workforce for an information department.

TZH: So, shouldn’t the Information Ministry be abolished?

ZTH: I have found two facts regarding the question of if Ministry of Information should be abolished. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has said that there should not be government-run newspapers in a democratic country. And Information Minister U Ye Htut said that the Ministry of Information has been in existence since the time of the government Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League. These two views are different. But as Ko Thiha has said, if government-run newspapers would operate with a state budget as a [profit-making] business, it is unacceptable. If they are to run as a business, they should not take money from the state, but operate on their own. If they take money from the state, they should not run as a business, but provide the service of sharing information to the people for free. So the NLD government, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has to choose one of these two options.

Regarding the abolishment of Ministry of Information, a ministry can be abolished in principle, but there are consequences we have to consider. Where will we use the staff and infrastructure of the ministry if it is abolished? There are branches of newspaper houses in divisions and states. If the Ministry of Information is abolished, capital investment in those facilities would be wasted. If the next government abolishes the things done by the previous government, and this pattern will repeat ad nauseam, our country would end in grinding poverty. I like what the senior members of the NLD have suggested. They’ve suggested combining three or two ministries into one. It is realistic. For example, it is realistic to combine the Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development and Ministry of Commerce like the combination of Ministry of Health with Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement. It is doable that the Ministry of Information can be changed into a department.

TZH: There is no Ministry of Information in democracies. But surely they have an information department from the government. Let’s discuss the role of private media. The role private media is playing is very limited in our country. There is no purely private broadcast media and they have to work in partnership with the government. There is no private independent broadcast media. The role of the media to criticize the government is therefore restricted. State-run media like Myanma Alinn, Kyemon and Myanma Radio and Television [MRTV] are commercially sustainable as they get advertisement orders. But private media is facing a hard time as they do not get advertisement orders. What is your view on this, Ko Thiha Thway?

TT: As government-run newspapers have stood as the official papers for a long time, people think that by only putting ads in them, [their ads] will reach the entire country or that [putting notifications in them] will legitimate them. We need to get rid of such thought. So as I have said before, the government-run newspapers should provide information to people for near free without accepting commercials. If that happens, private media will be able to sustain itself with commercials.

TZH: What do you think, Ko Zaw Thet Htwe?

ZTH: It seems that obituaries, weddings and notifications about land [ownership] can be legitimate only when they are put in government-run newspapers. So people do not put ads in private newspapers. The government-run newspapers therefore earn up to millions in advertisement revenues a day. If they no longer accept ads and those wishing to put ads switch to private media, it will create a breathing space for private media. And they [government-run newspapers] will become as good as their words to transform themselves into public service media.