Lawmakers Press Information Ministry to Open Up, Help Private News Outlets

By Lawi Weng 29 March 2018

YANGON — Lawmakers asked the Ministry of Information (MOI) if it had plans to help support the country’s struggling private news outlets and improve the public’s access to even the most basic government information during a session of the Lower House on Thursday in Naypyitaw.

National League for Democracy (NLD) lawmaker U Myint Lwin, representing Yangon Region’s Twante Township, complained that private news outlets were at an unfair disadvantage to publicly funded government outlets, raising concerns about the quality of news readers will have access to if private outlets die out. He said private outlets felt like lightweight boxers being forced to step into the ring with heavyweights.

“There have been complaints in other countries about state-run media using government funding to operate. But our country is reforming, so I do not want to complain yet about government money being used to run media outlets,” he said.

U Myint Lwin said 44 private media outlets have applied for operating licenses since the beginning of democratic reforms in 2011, but many were scaling back because of financial difficulties.

“They all feel like state-run media do not play fair because state-run media have many sections and branch offices, and they [sell] lots of advertising because they sell at a low price. So they feel like when they have to compete…they are boxing with heavyweights,” he said.

Deputy Information Minister U Aung Hla Htun said the government was trying to help private outlets.

The ministry, he said, “is trying to ask the government not to collect taxes from private media. But other people also need to work with the MOI in order to ask the government for tax breaks for private media.”

He said state-run news outlets were a bridge between the government and the people and charged low prices for advertising because the ministry did not want to earn a profit off the public or make its news unaffordable.

Switching topics, lawmaker Daw Aye Mya Mya Moe, representing Yangon’s Kyauktan Township, said the MOI was falling short of its responsibility to help the public access basic government information and recounted her own attempt to do so.

She said she had gone to the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) to find out what laws governed development projects in her constituency, but an official told her he could only share that information with approval from a superior.

Daw Aye Mya Mya Moe said the official’s superior promised to gather the information she was looking for and share it. She said that was several months ago and that she was still waiting. The lawmaker said she tried to get the information from township authorities, but they knew nothing about it.

“So I have a question: How can we develop our area if the YCDC cannot tell us the laws? I found that civil servants are very poor at providing information to the public. So when will the MOI provide basic rights like the right to information to the public?” Daw Aye Mya Mya Moe said. “Maybe you can teach the civil servants how to provide information to the public. The MOI should take action against [civil servants] who do not follow instructions from [superiors].”

U Aung Hla Htun, the deputy minister, said the government has posted contact information for spokespeople online. He said his ministry also opened a call center to provide the public with free information, held workshops across the country, and was working on a law addressing access to information.