Incoming Info Minister Pe Myint: ‘I Will Ensure Press Freedom’

By Htet Naing Zaw 28 March 2016

Born in 1949 in Thandwe, Arakan State, the ethnic Arakanese Pe Myint was approved by Parliament last week to serve as Burma’s next information minister. The vice chairman of the Myanmar Press Council earned his medical degree from the Rangoon University of Medicine in 1975. He worked as a general physician until entering the literary sphere in 1988.

He has since established himself as a writer of renown in Burma, and is particularly known for his translated works on motivation and personal development. He won Burma’s national literature award in 1995. The Irrawaddy tracked down the incoming cabinet member last week in Naypyidaw to discuss press freedom and prospects for Burma’s state-owned and private media.

You are a journalist and an author. How much can you guarantee press freedom as you are set to become the next minister of information?

[Press freedom] concerns laws as well as how [they are] practiced. Media organizations have to strive for it. As a media man, I do want press freedom. I will make sure there is press freedom, in cooperation with my journalist peers.

There are currently journalists who are behind bars for various reasons. Will you work for their release when you become the minister?

I have just been approved [by Parliament] to take the ministerial post. We have not yet had a cabinet meeting and therefore, it is hard for me to say anything about this right now. Personally, I will try as hard as I can to make sure journalists are not punished for their work.

We now have a certain degree of press freedom for print media. But we still do not have freedom for broadcast media. Private media, like SkyNet, is working in partnership with the government. What measures will you take to help establish freedom for private broadcasters?

Currently, we have a Broadcasting Law in place, but there is controversy over the law. I will do my best to review the Broadcasting Law, and will consider the views of those who want to do broadcasting, existing broadcasters, the realities, the input of scholars and situations in other countries.

What role can government-run print media, like The Mirror and Myanmar Ahlin dailies, play under the new government? What is your plan for government-run broadcast media? Journalists are concerned that cronies will get the [rights to] state-run broadcasting if it is privatized.

It is still early to discuss this now. There are different points of view. Some say it should be privatized, and some say it should be transformed into public service media. So, we need to consider this, depending on the situation on the ground, popular opinion and the government’s policy.

Do you have a plan to promote the role of radio, to help establish a community radio station?

These things will take shape gradually. Though we are not satisfied, there have been certain changes. Weekly news journals started to emerge four, five, six years ago, and private daily newspapers started to emerge about two years ago. Radio stations also emerged last year, and there have been calls for greater freedom in broadcast media. We are still in the process of transformation and there is still much room for improvement. The industry will be able to develop a lot in the future if the correct steps are taken.

Some media laws, such as the controversial Electronic Transactions Law, need to be changed. Will you try to change these laws?

Besides the Media Law, the Printing and Publishing Law, and the Broadcasting Law, there are several other laws under which journalists are subject to legal charges. These laws cover trespassing, the Official Secrets Act, and of course, the Electronic Transactions Law. We need to discuss what justifiable charges are for journalists under these laws.

How independent is the existing Myanmar Press Council?

I think it is an independent organization. It can be called a self-regulatory media body according to international terms. The association is useful as a mediator that works in line with journalistic ethics.

Under the existing laws, private media can’t operate print and broadcast media at the same time; they are not allowed to have cross-ownership. But the government operates both print and broadcast media. The Tatmadaw [military] has cross ownership under the name of ‘Myawaddy’. What is your plan to address such imbalances?

There are different views and concepts about cross-ownership. Recent workshops have focused on it, and have also defined new concepts. They are, however, not complete, and we need to figure out what is acceptable to the majority.

While private media has to struggle to survive, state-owned media publishes with public funds and get lots of advertisements. What will you do to end the state-run media’s monopoly?

I have not yet studied the details. I have just started studying the situation. But I can tell you that I will make sure the state-run media does not compete with private media for profits.

An Information Ministry no longer exists in most democracies. The NLD government has decided to keep the Information Ministry and there has been criticism. Do you think this ministry should still exist?

The government should run a department to communicate with the public. Even companies have a public relations department. People do not like the Information Ministry because it attacked dissidents in the past, restricted freedom of expression and imposed censorship. So, people don’t like it. People would say it should no longer exist when the country becomes a democracy.

The government should have a department to communicate with the people, whether it is called the Information Ministry or something else, because the government is responsible for reporting what elected lawmakers are doing for the people. At the same time, it is also responsible for reporting what the government is doing for the people and how, as well as public criticisms. It has to publish these things for the knowledge of the government, lawmakers and the public.

In my view, state-run media should publish the opinions of the people as well as discussions with people who have political knowledge. In that regard, government-operated print and broadcast media can carry out the duties of the state.

There is an Information Ministry in countries like England, but they do not use that name anymore.

There was an Information Ministry in the US. They called it the USIA [United States Information Agency] and the USIS [US Information Service]. But as far as I know, they prefer to use the public affairs department now. I mean, there should and must be communication between the government and the people. We have to monitor it so that it does not function as propaganda.