Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘The Government Still Discriminates Against Private Media’

By The Irrawaddy 7 May 2016

Thalun Zaung Htet: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss the landscape of press freedom in Myanmar for this year. Journalist Daw Mon Mon Myat and editor Ko Thiha of 7Day Journal and Daily newspaper will join me for the discussion. I’m Irrawaddy Burmese editor Thalun Zaung Htet.

May 3 marks World Press Freedom Day, designated by Unesco. This year marks the 23rd World Press Freedom Day, first celebrated in 1993. Myanmar media outlets also celebrated the day this year. I’ve invited you to discuss the media landscape of Myanmar in 2016. Our country is now in transition. The government elected by the people has come to power. Ko Thiha, what is your view of current press freedom?

Thiha: The government elected by the people assumed office on April 1. People have certain expectations of the government. Likewise, we journalists also have expectations—how freely will we be able to conduct reporting? I would like to define press freedom in two aspects—the right to report freely and the right to gather news freely. As to freedom of reporting, social media, print media and broadcast media can write, publish and broadcast freely if they have credible information and can take responsibility. As to access to information, private media have not enjoyed as much as state-owned media over the past five years under the U Thein Sein government. And one month and three days into the new government, the situation suggests that private media still do not enjoy it on equal terms.

TZH: The slogan of this year’s World Press Freedom Day is ‘access to information and fundamental freedoms: This is your right.’ Myanmar is among countries that still do not have freedom of information. Myanmar is ranked 143 in 180 countries in the Reporters Sans Frontieres [RSF] press freedom index. So, how much freedom are Myanmar journalists enjoying regarding access to information?

Mon Mon Myat: If we refer to that ranking, it can be said that Myanmar journalists enjoy somewhat more freedom than their peers in Singapore and Malaysia. Private media, however, is not yet treated equally with state-owned media regarding access to information. Although the new government acknowledges the important role played by the media, its will is in question. Will it provide facilities to ensure greater access to information—for example, how will it support the establishment of a good media center at the Parliament? Many reporters visit the [national] Parliament but, despite the fact the Parliament is a magnificently sized building, reporters are given a very narrow space. And several restrictions on access to information still exist from the time of the previous government. We have to ask the new government whether these restrictions will continue. Although the government holds press conferences, state-owned media enjoy greater access, while it seems private media are only allowed to take group photos.

These are the big challenges the new government has to overcome. The government still practices discrimination against private media. There are instances in which the government has denied private media journalists access on very important occasions, for this and that excuse, including that they are ‘not on the list.’ But then, when [former Lower House speaker and USDP chairman] U Shwe Mann was to hold a press conference, we were phoned and asked if we would attend. They use journalists only when they want to spread news and neglect them when they don’t need them. This was the practice of the previous government and it still continues. These are genuine, big challenges for the new government.

TZH: Government media does not exist in democratic countries, where governments only have information bodies that release official information. There may be government-run media in some democracies, but they are used for different purposes. In Myanmar, government-run media includes state broadcaster [MRTV] and newspapers Myanma Alin and Kyemon.

The government-run media [enjoy advantages that] seem to limit the growth of private media. Ko Thiha, you will know better as you are an editor with 7Day Journal and 7Day Daily. Dr. Pe Myint is the journalist-turned-information minister. One month into his tenure, he has tried to correct the flaws regarding state-run newspapers, which are now much like private dailies in terms of content. But on the other hand, state-run newspapers are commercially competing with private dailies and I heard that this has had some impact on private media. How much have private media been affected?

TH: We have suffered little impact so far. But the controversy is that, as Ko Thalun and many other journalists have said, in democracies, private media are favored and there is no state-run media. A veteran journalist told me that it is because governments use various [other] channels if they want to release information, such as posting on their official websites, holding press conferences and issuing press releases. Governments have media officers and spokespersons through which they release information to all private media on equal terms. In this way, the private media obtain information and report. So, in mature democracies, there is no government media. But government media still exists in our country.

Former Information Minister U Ye Htut said that government media should continue to exist to inform the public of the government’s policies, and issue draft laws, which private media are not interested in reporting on. U Pe Myint in his interview with Frontier magazine argued that government media should continue to exist so as to report the actions of the government to the public. I don’t know whether this is a new view of his [U Pe Myint], since he became a government official, or whether it has been his opinion since he served on the Press Council. Only he knows. Although the transformation of government media has so far had little impact on private media, we are a little concerned that private media may face challenges, with the impact becoming noticeable later. A journalist once told me that there are no government-run newspapers in democracies because governments do not want to intervene in free and independent newspaper markets.

Government newspapers have substantial infrastructure and very good logistics, including Kyemon and Myanma Alin. They have branches almost everywhere. If they were to really transform themselves into public service media, it is very likely that we [the private media] would lag far behind. So, government newspapers are normally not published in democracies, and there is free competition between private media outlets.

TZH: Some journalists say that, if they are really to launch public service media, the government should not compete with private media. They said government newspapers should not accept advertisements, because the government runs newspapers with state funds and they never make a loss. For example, although Kyemon and Myanma Alin can sell their copies at a unit price of 50 kyats [US$0.05], private dailies have to sell at around 200 kyats. If the reporting in government-run newspapers is good, as it is now, people will choose the government-run newspapers. Some private media outlets have to sustain themselves with advertising revenues. So, some journalists argue that the government-run newspapers should not be commercial.

Again, talking of an independent media, most of the broadcast and print media in Myanmar are owned by cronies who are somehow associated with the previous governments. How independent do you think the media will be in our country?

MMM: The government has been in power for just over 30 days and it is too early to measure how independent the media is under it. The independence of the media in a country is directly related to the press freedom of that country. It is important for a media outlet to be free and independent. Private media that are meant for commercial interests can’t be called independent media. For the media to develop and to become independent in a country, it is important that the media can stand on its own. But I don’t mean they should not have commercial interests. They will be able to sustain themselves over the long-term only when they can strike a balance between public and commercial interests.

The new government has to take these things into consideration. It has to consider how it will monitor the private media and how it will grant them freedom. There must be clear laws in place regarding control of private media where strong commercial interests pertain. We have not yet seen any sign that the 100-day plan of the new government focuses on any such thing. We have to wait and see what will happen. As all the ministries are carrying out 100-day plans, we have to see within 100 days what the new government is capable of. How independent the media will be and how big a role it can play largely depends on the government’s 100-day initiative. We have to wait and see.

TZH: Given the current situation and the fact that we do not yet know the policies of the new government, do you think press freedom in our country will improve in the next five years up to 2020?

TH: I hope it will improve, because the government is elected and supported by the people. And people call it a civilian and democratic government. Since it is a democratic, elected government, people want to know what it is doing, which direction it is going in. The government will need media to inform the people. So, hopefully they will pave the way for wider access to information and freedom in reporting. I am optimistic that there will be greater press freedom in the next five years.

MMM: There are organizations that are prepared to fight democracy with democracy. If we can endure the challenges to democracy and move forward, I believe we will be able to establish a better democracy by 2020.

TZH: Do you expect greater press freedom?

MMM: There are two aspects to it, press freedom and freedom of expression. The government has to handle lots of challenges to keep them in balance. The challenge is huge. I want to be optimistic, but we have yet to wait and see how the government will overcome these challenges.

TZH: Ko Thiha, Ma Mon Myat, thank you.