Information Minister Embraces the Propaganda Machine He Inherited

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 6 December 2018

YANGON—Relations between the National League for Democracy-led government and local media have turned sour lately. The situation must be addressed by the government.

Last month, President U Win Myint and State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi revealed their controversial perceptions of the media, which some media professionals interpreted as a skepticism that could have a chilling effect on the Fourth Estate.

On Wednesday, at the opening ceremony of the Conference on Media Development in Myanmar in Naypyitaw, Information Minister U Pe Myint reiterated that there is a continued need for the existence of state-run media, saying it can inform people about what the government and Parliament are doing for them.

This was his public reply to calls from the country’s struggling private media sector that state-owned media be shut down because they are propped up with public funds (they incurred an estimated 1.2 billion-kyat (US$770,000) loss in fiscal 2018-19) while eating up the lion’s share of the market and production facilities.

It’s disappointing to hear such comments from the country’s information minister, especially one who serves a government that is tasked with leading a democratic transition. Frankly, his lame argument for the continued need for a government mouthpiece is simply an embrace of one of the former military government’s main legacies: an official propaganda mechanism.

Ironically, U Pe Myint made his comments at an event supported by organizations including UNESCO, USAID and UKAID to promote a free and strong press in the country.

Speaking at the opening ceremony of the conference in Nyapyitaw on Wednesday, he said: “The government and Parliament have a responsibility to report back to the voters on what they are doing. The government media is fulfilling that duty. Even for future governments, I want to say, the information channel between the government and the people would be the same as now, or in some form that suits the changing times,” U Pe Myint said.

His statement prompted questions such as whether the government-run media will accurately report back to the people on official irregularities. History suggests not.

Since the early 1960s, Myanmar’s state-owned media have, like their counterparts elsewhere, developed a reputation for publishing nothing more than government press releases and a who’s who of participants at state meetings. Under the NLD-led government, not much has changed.

Here is a recent example:

When the country’s anti-graft body, the Anti-Corruption Commission, investigated a corruption complaint against former finance minister U Kyaw Win in early May this year, state-run media were silent. It was the country’s private print media that exposed the investigation. After serious media attention was devoted to the case, the commission leader confirmed to reporters that the investigation was nearly done. Despite all the public confirmation by the leader of the government’s anti-graft body, state media didn’t utter a word about the case.

Given the case mentioned above, there’s no reason to believe the minister’s comment on Wednesday that the state-run media under his control are fulfilling their duty by reporting back to the people on what the government is doing. Doesn’t U Pe Myint think the voters have a right to know what’s going wrong in the government and how it is trying to fix it? The information minister must wake up and realize that he is just replicating the former military regime’ propaganda machine, whose role was to cover up anything embarrassing to the government and paint a rosy picture.

Information Minister U Pe Myint attends the opening ceremony of the Media Development in Myanmar Conference in Naypyitaw on Dec. 5, 2018. / Htet Naing Zaw

U Pe Myint, the former chief editor of the respected political journal Pyithu Khit (People’s Age), used to say that previous governments used state-run media as a propaganda weapon. Sadly, by defending the existence of state-run media, the NLD government’s information minister has become a bird of the same feather as his predecessors in the previous government and military regime.

At Wednesday’s conference, he also questioned the reliability of international reports on freedom of expression in Myanmar, claiming they are biased.

Two local Reuters reporters are currently serving long prison sentences for breaching the law on state secrets, despite the testimony of a police witness who said that the pair was arrested as punishment for their investigation of a mass killing of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine. Another three journalists from Eleven Media were recently involved in a legal dispute with the Yangon government for writing about lawmakers’ discussions of the government’s budget in Parliament. With journalists in jail and in court, anyone with common sense can judge whether press freedom in the country is waning or waxing.

What was missing from his speech was recognition of the notion of press freedom and the fact that a healthy media has to be independent. If there is no independence, the media will be nothing more than a state-owned propaganda machine. Myanmar needs independent news outlets more than ever as it undergoes a democratic transition while facing mounting problems ranging from weak rule of law and rampant bureaucratic corruption to the faltering peace process with ethnic armed groups and the presence of military-run ministries within the government.

Instead, he questioned whether local journalists have editorial independence from their financiers, and lectured them on the need to provide readers correct information while protecting and loving the country.

To determine whether journalists have editorial independence, the minister could check news reports by local media outlets. He shouldn’t be thin-skinned if he sees criticism of the NLD in the reports, and it is simply unfair for him to question their editorial independence because they criticize the NLD government.

The government should reach out to the press more by promoting the role of independent media with more access to information. By doing so, the government would be able to deter fake news. It can’t be denied that a well-sourced report by an independent media outlet has more credibility among readers than a government statement on the same issue. A democratic government that encourages a free press will never suffer. If a country’s freedom press index rises, its government will be praised internationally as a guardian of democracy. It is independent media that empower people to make their choice of government. At the same time, independent media can carry the voice of the voters to the government in a way that state-run media cannot.