Minister Vows to Turn Govt Mouthpieces Into ‘Public Service Newspapers’

By Yen Saning 19 September 2014

RANGOON — Minister of Information Ye Htut told a media conference on Thursday that he intends to push ahead with a plan that would turn state-owned newspapers into “public service print media,” making Burma one of the few countries in the world where the government continues to fund daily newspapers.

Independent media representatives in recent months have raised their concerns over the plan to keep the military regime-era, propaganda outlets afloat, despite government pledges that the papers would become more independent and serve the public interest.

“We will create public service [print] media because most of our public gets information from print media—our digital penetration rate is low,” Ye Htut told the 3rd Conference on Media Development in Myanmar, held in Rangoon on Thursday and Friday.

“It’s not true that public service newspapers do not exist [in other countries], they are just not successful,” he said. “We will make it successful.”

Since 2012, President Thein Sein’s reformist government has lifted draconian media restrictions, such as ending pre-publication censorship and a ban on private daily newspapers. It announced plans to revamp the government newspapers and Myanmar Radio and Television (MRTV) by turning them into independent public service media.

The ministry’s Public Service Media bill proposes that the newspapers receive 70 percent government funding, derive 30 percent of income from commercial advertising, and become exempt from taxes. The bill was sent to Parliament several months ago and is due for discussion in the legislature soon.

Many countries have public service broadcasters, such as the UK’s British Broadcasting Service (BBC), but few governments fund newspapers and the practice is mostly associated with totalitarian and communist regimes.

Norway-funded news broadcaster Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) and the BBC have been working with Burma’s Information Ministry to help MRTV during its transition to a public service broadcaster. Japan’s Kyodo news agency provided training to modernize state-run newspapers.

Ye Htut claimed that The New Light of Myanmar and The Mirror (Kyemon)— government mouthpieces produced in English and Burmese by the Information Ministry—could play a role that independent, private media could not.

He said the revamped state newspapers would, for example, be able to give ample space to public health warnings and offer news in ethnic minority languages.

During past decades, the Burman-dominated government suppressed ethnic minorities’ rights and political aspirations, and banned minority languages from the education system. Ethnic minorities remain deeply suspicious of the government and are currently setting up independent, local-language media.

The Interim Press Council of Myanmar has repeatedly criticized the ministry’s plans to create “public service newspapers,” saying that the papers should be privatized. The council has said that continuing the publication of state newspapers would create an uneven playing field that put Burma’s fledgling, independent private media at a disadvantage.

Thiha Saw, a member of Interim Press Council, said on Thursday, “State newspapers are the only papers that existed during socialist and authoritarian rule [in Burma].”

“Actually, most countries do not have public service newspapers. They are not successful,” he said, adding that Burma’s state-run newspapers were nationalized in the 1960s and should be returned to their original owners.

“The ministry should support the development private newspapers sector, even though they are making some mistakes right now,” Thiha Saw said, “Public service newspapers will be a burden in the long term as they rely mostly on state fund.”

DVB director and chief editor Aye Chan Naing said on Thursday that he understood the need for turning MRTV into a public service broadcaster, but added, “I don’t really agree that newspapers should be part of the public service media.”