Minister Predicts ‘No Losses’ in Public Service Media

By San Yamin Aung 6 March 2015

RANGOON — As private daily newspapers struggle to survive in Burma’s changing media landscape, Information Minister Ye Htut told the Union Parliament on Thursday that state-owned newspapers are alive and well, reiterating that state budgets would suffer no losses by transforming government dailies into public service media.

The minister said that state dailies brought in a net profit of more than 3 billion kyats (US$2.8 million) during the 2013-14 fiscal year, and are expected to reach 4 billion kyats in net revenue for the current fiscal year, according to a parliamentary roundup published in state-run Myanma Alinn.

Since President Thein Sein and his administration assumed power in 2011, junta-era media restrictions have been eased significantly; pre-publication censorship was abolished in August 2012, and the lifting of a government ban on private dailies came into effect in April 2013.

Despite the reforms, however, detention and other forms of intimidation have caused journalists and rights groups to warn that the government could be backsliding on press freedom, while a plan to transform state-owned media into a “public service” prompted concern that private media could soon be put at a serious disadvantage.

Under a proposed Public Service Media bill, 70 percent of the total funding for state media outlets would come from taxpayers, while the rest would be drawn from advertising, sales and international assistance programs.

Myint Kyaw, a member of Burma’s semi-independent Interim Press Council, said the plan could endanger private media by giving unfair advantages to state-backed outlets, which already have their own production and distribution networks and access to wire services—under the name of Myanmar News Agency, or MNA—that are bankrolled by the government.

“Private newspapers need to rent office space, buy printing presses and pay staff salaries. I don’t think they considered all of those things,” said Myint Kyaw, adding that the combined expenses of competing in the media marketplace make it very difficult to stay afloat. Since a flood of dailies entered the market two years ago, about eight of them have already folded.

“Since we don’t have the support from the government, they have more advantages as a competitor,” Myint Kyaw said.

One newspaper that couldn’t make ends meet was Mizzima Daily, a publication of Mizzima Media Group, which stopped producing its daily Burmese print edition on March 1. Mizzima’s chief editor and managing director, Soe Myint, told The Irrawaddy that “there are many difficulties and it’s very costly to publish a private newspaper.

Myint Kyaw said that he has seen changes in the content of government media outlets, which he attributed to an attempt to change the image of Burma’s notorious and sometimes unwittingly comical state media.

“I think they want to say they are no longer the government’s propaganda outlet,” he said, offering the example that state papers are now covering events such as student protests, which they might not have done in the past. Still, he said, state rags “reflect the government’s policy, not the public,” focusing on the voice of authority instead of the voices of the populace.

“They want to take up this image,” he said, “but there is no doubt that these newspapers are still run by the state. We keep saying it is unnecessary to publish their newspapers under the title [of public service].”

Burma now has a total of about 13 private and three state-owned daily newspapers.