Information Minister’s Allegations of Bias Draw Ire of Media Groups

By Nan Lwin 5 December 2018

YANGON—Journalists and media advocacy organizations on Wednesday condemned Information Minister U Pe Myint over a speech in which he championed the role of government-owned media, questioned the very possibility of editorial independence at private news outlets, and made other statements the groups said were unacceptably at odds with their ethical standards and the goals of the very forum at which his comments were delivered.

Addressing the 7th Media Development Forum in Naypyitaw, the minister delivered a speech titled “Building Effective Partnerships in Myanmar’s Media Development”.

In response to his comments, 16 organizations participating in the forum including the Myanmar Journalist Network, PEN Myanmar, the Center for Myanmar Media Development, Article 19 and Free Expression Myanmar issued a statement.

Addressing the role of government media and the changes it has undergone, U Pe Myint, who once edited a private journal, told the audience that government-owned media will still have a lively role to play as a bridge between the government and the public.

In the statement the media organizations pointed out that the minister’s comments ignored the media’s customary role in a democracy as a “fourth pillar” ensuring the transparency of the other three pillars (the legislature, executive and judiciary). News provided by government-owned media, they said, is propaganda that fails to legitimately criticize government wrongdoings.

At the forum, U Pe Myint said some people have criticized the lack of media freedom in Myanmar. He said such people should provide concrete examples. He cited a report by Germany’s Deutsche Welle that accused Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders of bias in the way they collect the information they use to compile their Freedom of the Press report and Press Freedom Index, respectively.

According to Deutsche Welle, the minister said, Freedom House is funded by the United States government but lacks transparency in that it fails to reveal how it calculates its scores for its press freedom report. He also said Reporters Without Borders receives funding from the French government and claimed this meant the organization reflected Paris’ views.

The statement accused the minister of turning a blind eye to the fact that the press freedom indexes are the result of systematic research by international organizations that support press freedom. The statement added that if the minister accepted the reality that press freedom was declining in Myanmar, all sides could tackle the problem together.

In his speech, the minister cast doubt on the very notion of editorial independence, asking how an editor of a news organization can remain independent from the views of its publisher, or be immune to the power of advertisers who support it financially. He also questioned who determines editorial policy—editors or journalists?

He said discussions of freedom of expression and press freedom always centered on journalists’ need for freedom from government restrictions. Instead, he asserted, journalists should try freeing themselves from the influence of the people who control them financially.

Addressing these claims, the statement urged the minister to direct his concern toward the existence of government-owned media that use state funds to publish propaganda on behalf of the government and military.

At the end of his speech, the minister repeated a recent comment made during an interview with a Myanmar Press Council member and a reporter from state-owned media. The Press Council member said journalists should remember to love their country when doing their jobs. The comment was widely criticized by journalists.

U Pe Myint said that while journalists have a responsibility to provide the public with accurate information, they should not forget their duty to protect and love their country.

The media groups responded in the statement that the minister’s speech was completely at odds with media ethics and press freedom, and therefore in complete opposition to the objectives of the Media Development Forum.

Editors and journalism experts echoed the media associations’ condemnation of the minister’s comments.

U Aung Zaw, founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy, said the information minister’s comments on Wednesday sent a shocking message to independent media in Myanmar, and were especially troubling coming from a government led by the National League for Democracy. He wondered if U Pe Myint had become the successor to U Kyaw Hsan, a former general and information minister under the military regime.

“We had been faintly hoping that U Pe Myint would gradually dismantle the state-run media along with the Ministry of Information. Today is a sad day for independent media in Myanmar under the NLD government,” U Aung Zaw said.

Democratic Voice of Burma’s Yangon bureau chief, U Toe Zaw Lat, said that—following in the footsteps of his predecessors in the previous government and military regime—the information minister seemed very defensive about the role of the state media and his ministry.

“To keep democracy alive, we surely need an independent media,” he said.

U Thiha Saw, a journalism trainer at Myanmar National Management College, said the minister’s comments seemed hostile toward the media. “He seems to be questioning the existence of an independent media, while being oblivious to their present struggles.”