Govt Should Change Bill, Privatize State Newspapers: Press Council

By San Yamin Aung 8 October 2013

RANGOON — The Interim Press Council of Myanmar has urged the Ministry of Information to abandon a section of the Public Service Media bill that would continue government support for state-run newspapers, saying that these publications should be privatized instead.

“Internationally, there are no state-owned newspapers,” said council member Ye Min Oo, adding that private print media freed from government controls would be better suited to provide the public with information.

The council held a press conference this weekend to underline its demands regarding the Public Service Media bill, which the Information Ministry has been drafting in recent months.

Since taking office in 2011, President Thein Sein’s reformist government has lifted draconian media restrictions that were in place during decades of military rule, such as a pre-publication media censorship.

It also plans to revamp state-run newspapers The New Light of Myanmar and The Mirror, and Myanmar Radio and Television (MRTV), by turning them into independent public service media. In the past, the media organizations were used as propaganda outlets for the repressive military regime.

The Public Service Media bill would be overseen by a PSM Council with two sections: a Public Service Newspaper Enterprise (PSNE) that manages the public service print media, and a Public Service Broadcasting Enterprise (PSBE) that manages the public service television and radio stations, according to Article 19, a UK-based freedom of expression advocacy group that assessed the bill in June.

Public service media would receive 70 percent of its funding from Parliament and 30 percent from commercial sources such as advertising, but would not pay taxes like other publications.

The Interim Myanmar Press Council said the current PSM bill would create an uneven playing field that put privately-owned media at a disadvantage.

“If the state-run media can get public funds and income from advertisement [private newspapers] cannot compete with them,” said Zaw Thet Htwe, a council member. “Especially, because the state-run newspaper could sell at very low prices, like for example for 50 kyat [US $0.05], while private newspapers have to charge at least 200 kyat.”

Currently, the state-run daily The Mirror is sold for a mere 2,000 kyat [about $2] per month.

Zaw Thet Htwe said the state-run newspaper should cut all ties with the Information Ministry and stand on their own feet as private media companies. “They should become private companies—it’s not a problem,” he said.

The council does support the Public Service Broadcasting part of the bill, which would create government-supported public service television and radio stations. Like in other countries, such public radio and TV would enable broadcast programs on issues that are ignored by private channels, such as educational programs.

The council, however, urged the Information Ministry to redraft some sections of the bill pertaining to public service TV and radio in order to ensure that the stations become more independent.

Article 19 said in June that it generally welcomed the new Public Service Media bill, but, like the Press Council, it objects to supporting state-run newspapers.

The group said the PSM bill should also be changed as the current draft does not provide sufficient independence to public television and radio channels in terms of funding and regulations.

“Until now, the Myanmar state has controlled all forms of media in many different ways. This control must end if the government is serious about democratizing. The [public service radio and TV] must be entirely independent from state and commercial interests,” the group said.

Additional reporting by Paul Vrieze.