Burma Govt Says ‘Public Service,’ Journalists See Propaganda

By Htet Naing Zaw 20 March 2014

RANGOON — Rangoon-based journalists say they cannot accept a public service media (PSM) bill submitted to Parliament’s Lower House by the government on Monday, criticizing the legislation as a self-serving proposal put forward by the Thein Sein administration.

A number of journalists told The Irrawaddy that they believed the law, if enacted, would not provide the general public with a real service, and would instead be used as a tool for government propaganda.

On Monday, the Ministry of Information (MOI), while submitting the bill to the Lower House, stressed that the PSM legislation was developed with expertise from the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), and was drafted with the public good in mind. It envisions a transformation of state mouthpieces like the New Light of Myanmar newspaper and broadcaster MRTV into “public service media.”

“Public service broadcasting is needed in a country like Burma, but not a newspaper of such a kind,” journalist Sithu Aung Myint told The Irrawaddy. “A newspaper should not be placed and published under the ‘public service’ label. Such practice doesn’t exist internationally.”

If the bill is adopted, he said it would be used as a government propaganda vehicle ahead of national elections in 2015, in which many expect the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party will unseat the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

Under the PSM bill, 70 percent of total funding for public service media outlets would come from taxpayers, while the rest would be provided by advertising revenue, newspaper sales and international funding.

“I can’t accept that budget either,” said Naing Min Wai, the editor-in-chief of the soon-to-be-published People Power private newspaper. “Will the government be able to provide real services using the people’s money? It can’t just label its propaganda as a public service.”

In a meeting on public service media last year, Ye Htut, the deputy minister of information, told participants that an independent Media Council to provide technical assistance and advice to public service media would be formed, consisting of 15 people selected equally by the president, the Lower House speaker and the Upper House speaker. An administrative body would also be formed under the Media Council, but these bodies would not compromise the editorial independence of public service media, he claimed.

Sithu Aung Myint said the proposed Media Council’s independence was doubtful, given that it would be selected by USDP leaders who were also senior members of Burma’s former military regime.

Myint Kyaw from Burma’s Interim Press Council told The Irrawaddy that the ostensible purpose of the proposed legislation was admirable, but impracticable.

“What is written in the bill, such as [its goal] to bring in ethnic and minority voices and to remove economic bias, is good, but I don’t think these objectives can practically be implemented,” said Myint Kyaw. “Having existed as state media for many years and with the way they [the MOI] think, I don’t believe the public will be provided with a real service.”

Upon the bill’s submission, Information Minister Aung Kyi told lawmakers that out of 49 million people who are literate in Burma, about 43 million did not have access to newspapers, a gap in coverage that only nonprofit, public service media could fill.

“I accept television and radio, but I don’t think newspapers should be published under this title [public service],” said Myint Kyaw. “Moving from a state-controlled propaganda model to editorial independence is almost impossible.”

Pe Than, a lawmaker from the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), told The Irrawaddy that he would instead recommend that the government offer assistance to strengthen private media if the PSM bill is discussed in Parliament.

“We now have private newspapers competing with the government’s ones,” said Pe Than. “The public does not have interest in the state-owned newspapers, which are much different from private ones that stand on the side of the people.”

Currently, there are about 10 private and three state-owned newspapers published daily in Burma.