By Kyaw Phyo Tha 20 November 2014
YANGON — On a sunny late monsoon day in September, Myanmar’s Information Minister U Ye Htut was taking questions from local journalists and international media observers who packed the Chatrium Hotel’s ballroom in Yangon.
Many in the audience on the opening day of the two-day “3rd Conference on Media Development in Myanmar” expressed skepticism over the government’s plan, first canvassed in 2012, to transform state-owned daily newspapers into public service media. The state-owned Myanmar Radio and Television (MRTV) is also to be transformed into a public service broadcaster.
When one gentleman said that “there is no public service print media in other countries,” the former lieutenant colonel responded: “No, what you said is not true. They exist but are just not successful. But here in Myanmar, we are determined to make it a success.”
However, independent media representatives, including the country’s Interim Press Council, have raised concerns over the newspapers plan and have labeled it unnecessary. They see it as a way to keep the military regime-era propaganda papers afloat, and they seriously doubt the minister’s intentions.
After five decades of strict media censorship since Gen. Ne Win staged a military coup in 1962, Myanmar’s Ministry of Information (MOI) abolished pre-publication censorship of the press in 2012. A year later, the ministry also allowed the publishing of private daily newspapers, while it kept publishing its state-run dailies.
At present, there are three state-owned dailies: two in the Myanmar language—Kyemon (The Mirror) and Myanma Alinn—and one in English, The Global New Light of Myanmar. The English-language paper was relaunched as a joint venture with Myanmar firm Global Direct Link in October. All three papers are under the control of the MOI.
A Bad Legacy
In the past the papers made no disguise of their role as government mouthpieces, especially during the period of the former military dictatorship that ran the country for more than two decades after 1988. Until U Thein Sein took office in 2011, the papers were known for their uninhibited views on political matters. Sustained media salvos were launched against political dissidents and armed ethnic rebels who were portrayed as “destructive elements” that were trying to “disintegrate national solidarity and the Union.”
Unsurprisingly, thanks to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s rising popularity at home and abroad after 1988, the Myanmar democracy leader was frequently personally attacked. For a time, serialized articles about her appeared almost daily in the papers. In an example of how petty things could get, in a July 7, 1996 story about the opposition leader that appeared in Kyemon, the author, Sein Jittu, refused to use the Nobel Laureate’s full name. She was referred to only as “Daw Suu.” “She is not entitled to use her father’s name,” the author contended, contrasting how Gen. Aung San fought for the country’s independence from Britain, while his daughter went on to marry a British man.
In another article published the same month, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was addressed as “Myo Pyat Ma” (meaning a woman who causes disgrace and has no loyalty to her race) in reference to her marriage to a foreigner. Another writer said that “she has become part kalar [a derogatory term for foreigners, especially those of Indian descent] by marrying a kalar, joining his family and behaving like a kalar.”
Ethnic armed groups were also a top target of the military government’s propaganda attacks. For three straight months in 1995, following Myanmar Army attacks against the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the military wing of the Karen National Union (KNU), the state-run newspapers published cock and bull stories under the title “What is KNU?” A total of 33 stories hammered out the standard message that ethnic armed struggle was undermining national solidarity and would lead to the disintegration of the Union of Myanmar. Then KNU leader Bo Mya was addressed as “Nga Mya.” Nga is an archaic Myanmar prefix that was mostly used by Myanmar kings and high-ranking officials in the old days to denote a “servant” or “slave.”
Beyond these propaganda articles, readers found few informative stories in the state-run papers. Front pages were often splashed with bland articles on humdrum events such as opening ceremonies for schools, roads and bridges by high-ranking military officials. Readers’ patience was sorely tested by long paragraphs in which every official in attendance was named. As a result, many people tuned in to the Myanmar services from the BBC or VOA and exiled Myanmar media for alternative news. The state-run papers were useful mainly to check the “Obituary” section to learn of the death of friends.
A Bumpy Beginning
A proposed Public Service Media (PSM) bill was published in state-run dailies in May 2013. The then Deputy Information Minister U Ye Htut said that the proposed bill was drawn up with the support of international organizations including the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) and other local and foreign experts. Though the draft covered both print and broadcast media, it was the proposals regarding state print media that have most come under fire, especially from international media watchdogs, journalists and Myanmar’s Interim Press Council.
In a June 2013 statement on Myanmar’s PSM draft, London-based freedom of expression advocacy group ARTICLE 19 said there was no justification for spending public money on public service newspapers, since the aim of enabling a diversity of opinion and information would be better achieved by ensuring that newspapers operated freely.
Myanmar expert Bertil Linter told The Irrawaddy that the PSM model that the MOI seems to be following is that of Singapore, where the government controls news through its own paper, The Straits Times. “No country in the world with a free press has ‘public service newspapers,’—that’s just a euphemism for a government-controlled press,” said the Swedish journalist, before adding that those international organizations helping the ministry, once infamous for its press censorship, to draft the PSM bill were “naïve and don’t know what they are doing.”
Members of Myanmar’s Interim Press Council have rejected the PSM bill’s stipulation that 70 percent of funding for public service media outlets would be derived from public funds (the other 30 percent is slated to come from advertising, assistance from development organizations, newspaper sales and donations). They also disagree with the inclusion of print media in the PSM draft, as they say there are few, if any, public service newspapers funded by governments in other countries.
“We don’t need ‘public service’ newspapers,” said U Thiha Saw, a member of the council. “It [creates] unfair competition because 70 percent of the budget is from the government, while private newspapers are struggling from their own pockets.”
Since privately-owned dailies hit newsstands, most have struggled to stay afloat. Some have even shut down, thanks to high production costs, low advertising demand and smaller market-share compared with the state-funded government dailies of today. Government newspapers also have nationwide printing presses that allow them to distribute their papers to remote parts of the country. In contrast, private dailies are mostly restricted to selling papers in the main cities. The three state-run dailies have a combined circulation of more than 320,000 while the more popular private newspapers only sell about 80,000 copies per day, the Associated Press reported earlier this year.
U Pho Thauk Kyar, a veteran journalist and vice-chairman of the Interim Press Council, said state-funded public service newspapers were inappropriate for a country like Myanmar with a fledgling democracy.
“The government should cooperate with private dailies to promote press freedom. Instead, they are now trying to compete with them. It’s totally wrong,” he said. “If they want to create public service media, they could do it with broadcast media, like in other countries.” Establishing public service broadcast media could be a positive development, the vice-chairman added, as these outlets could air content such as educational programs that private outlets often ignore.
Serving the People?
Despite the criticism, the MOI submitted the PSM bill to Parliament in March this year, but it still hasn’t been discussed. A separate draft law, the Television and Radio Bill, which paves the way for public service broadcasting only, was approved by the Parliament’s Upper House in mid-October and is now due to be debated in the lower house.
In defense of public service newspapers, U Ye Htut said during the media development conference in September that state-run papers have been in a process of change for the last three years and now cover a wider range of topics, including social issues such as labor disputes and HIV. Sometimes they even do a somewhat better job than private dailies, he claimed.
“Let me tell you frankly, when we uncovered a suspected Ebola case in Yangon in recent months, did any private newspapers report the health warning from the Ministry of Health for three days as we [the state-run newspapers] did?” the minister asked rhetorically.
Although U Ye Htut has trumpeted the state-run papers’ capacity to serve the people, the papers have yet to be seen to fully follow some tenets of the government’s own “Code of Ethics for Public Service Media,” compiled by the government-appointed five member PSM overseeing body—the “Newspaper Governing Body”—established in October 2012. In particular, the government dailies appear to be falling short in their responsibility to “timely and accurately inform the public of the matters occurred in the human society,” as described in the code of ethics.
In late August, when the Yangon Regional Government announced that its multi-billion dollar city expansion plan was to be led by a little-known Chinese company, the MOI-owned newspapers remained silent. It was only after the plan drew broader media criticism that the papers published a story, seven days later, which said that the project would reopen for tender. When the project was suspended on Sept. 26, this news was nowhere to be found in the state-owned newspaper editions published the following day.
When local and international controversy arose over Myanmar migrant workers’ alleged involvement in the killing of two British tourists on Koh Tao in southern Thailand in September, all three government-owned papers were late to weigh in on a story that had become a hot national issue.
Though The Irrawaddy made repeated attempts to contact U Ye Htut, the presidential spokesman was unavailable for comment.
U Ye Htut’s vow to transform the state-owned papers has failed to impress many journalists.
U Pho Thauk Kyar said such a transformation was impossible, even if U Ye Htut were the president. “Make no mistake, Myanmar people have lost faith in state media as it has cheated and pushed people into the information dark ages since 1962. Given their past coverage, does [anyone really] think the MOI could change it in the next 50 years?” asked the 83-year-old, who has spent the better part of his life as a journalist.
“I explain this to the country’s president as well as to the Parliament speakers from both Houses whenever we meet,” U Pho Thauk Kyar added, referring to the Interim Press Council’s frequent meetings with the country’s top leaders.
U Thiha Saw said that, looking at the current coverage in the state-run newspapers, it seems they are writing for the government rather than the people. “Though there have been changes, they are still putting out news that comes from upstairs.”
That take was perhaps borne out in the way Myanmar’s state media reported on the recent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. In the early days of Hong Kong’s Occupy Central protests, the government dailies ignored the story. When an article finally appeared after public criticism, the piece was merely a compilation of pro-Beijing reportage under the headline “Critics Slam Unlawful Protests in Hong Kong.”
Responding to online commenters who questioned the way state media was portraying the protests, U Ye Htut acknowledged on his Facebook page that he had issued a directive to state media organs on Oct. 2 that the news must be presented sensibly and in accordance with journalistic ethics. Part of that code of ethics was that news reporting must not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.
U Pho Thauk Kyar said that if the government wanted to develop public service newspapers, the aim was mainly to present its own point of view. “Don’t forget what they said in the past: fight the media by the media,” he said, referring to the former military government’s mission to publish propaganda articles attacking unwanted international reportage on Myanmar.
ARTICLE 19 has recommended that the state-owned print media be privatized and that the PSM bill be reformed to only provide for a public service broadcaster. U Thiha Saw agrees. “What the government should do is to return the papers to the people. They were all private dailies before they were nationalized after 1962.”
This article first appeared in the November 2014 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.