It’s disappointing to see the way the Yangon government fails to uphold democratic norms these days. Rather than being transparent, the city government appointed by the democratically elected National League for Democracy seems shrouded in secrecy. It recently denied lawmakers access to the auditor-general’s report, leaving them unprepared to question the government on its spending in fiscal 2017-18. The latest failure came on Tuesday when it handpicked certain media outlets to attend a press conference at the government office about 149 development projects the Yangon government is slated to implement. Nearly all of them on the list, including a controversial new city project, have yet to be approved by the parliament. Those present were mostly from state-run and affiliated media, along with a couple of private dailies.
Most of the excluded media, including The Irrawaddy, knew nothing of the conference until they happened to see a post about it on the Yangon regional government’s Facebook page and asked why they had not been invited. Nearly every Yangon-based privately owned media organization is registered with the Yangon Government Office—precisely to ensure they get access to government press conferences.
Normally, the Ministry of Information’s Copy Rights and Registration Department rings media houses in advance whenever there is a press briefing. Prior to Tuesday’s press conference, however, no invitations were received. When The Irrawaddy complained to the department over its failure to call, an official replied that they had no idea about the press conference, as they had not received any instruction from the regional government. So it’s crystal clear who was behind the decision to handpick those covering the press conference.
The question is, why would the Yangon regional government exclude certain media organizations from a press conference?
Hold on—before you guess at the answer, you should be aware that among those who were left out were certain agencies that have been critical of the regional government, especially of its leader, Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein. Over the past two years, they have relentlessly questioned him about his government’s controversial plans like the still unfinished traffic control system for the congested city, and a new city project slated to be built across the Yangon River, as well as irregularities such as his government’s decision to transfer 10 billion kyats (US$6.5 million) in public funds to a government-owned company without the parliament’s knowledge. So far, most of these questions have gone unanswered.
It seems possible that the Yangon government wants to keep the assertive and responsive reporters at bay to avoid being grilled. So, they just selectively invited some and held a so-called press conference. If that is the case, the Yangon government is solely responsible for this media discrimination.
The selective invitations to Tuesday’s press conference constitute a violation of the media’s right to access information. In June, after journalists asked the government to ensure their access to information at a meeting between the regional executive, legislative, judiciary and media sectors, the Yangon Government Office told the Myanmar Press Council that it would hold press conferences twice a month. It was taken for granted that this access would be provided to all media—not a handpicked few.
Furthermore, Tuesday’s press conference before a group of selected media representatives makes a mockery of the chief minister’s own words at a press conference at the Yangon Investment Forum in May. U Phyo Min Thein told the media—for the record, this was not a pre-selected audience of friendly media!—that in order “to be closer to the [private] media” he was considering holding press conferences twice a month and wished to “collaborate with the Fourth Estate”, as he wanted to share information about what his government was doing to win investors’ trust.
Here are his exact words: “It would be alright if you can ask what you want to know. I want to see you all and am dying to talk to you.”
The message was unmistakably clear and straightforward: the chief minister said he was open to all news media organizations. Not just handpicked ones.
As the head of the Yangon regional government, Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein should address media discrimination. Any failure to do so could cost him; every journalist in town knows he is sensitive to the media. He has complained that some reporters weren’t dressed properly while covering official events. Anyone who criticizes the chief minister is accused of writing “in anger”. He has the mistaken impression that the media only report negative news about the government. The one-time political prisoner once warned journalists that the press freedom they enjoy today was made possible by the sacrifices of people like him, who languished in prison under the military government. Last year, he jailed three journalists for an analysis based on lawmakers’ discussions in parliament, saying they defamed his administration. The move prompted the Union President to intervene, ordering the chief minister to follow the Myanmar Media Law.
Most journalists are just doing their job without fear or favor. It’s their responsibility to cover or expose any irregularities, whether they involve the actions of the government or anyone else in society. Media criticism of those in power mostly arises due to missteps or misunderstandings about what they are doing. If the issue is related to the public interest, the scrutiny will be harsher. In terms of what to write, most journalists can’t be dictated to or seduced—especially those from independent media outlets, as they have to maintain neutrality toward those they cover. Worried about misreporting or a lack of professionalism? Readers will make their judgment about whom to keep reading. When it comes to sharing with the general public what you are doing and what your plans are, the most appropriate way to handle journalists is to give them access to information. To do so, let them all cover your press conferences. Not just a select few!