Myanmar’s information minister has rejected widespread domestic and international criticism that the Southeast Asian country is backpedaling on media freedom, and has stressed the need for state-owned news organizations to continue informing citizens about government policies and decisions.
In recent years, officials and military officers have increasingly used vaguely worded laws to have journalists who publish reports that are critical of them arrested and jailed.
“I’ve been hearing that our country is deprived of media freedom, even more so now than it was under the previous government,” said Information Minister Pe Myint on Wednesday during the opening ceremony of a conference on media development in Myanmar in the capital Naypyidaw.
“I would advise those who have been saying this to avoid blaming the government indiscriminately,” he said. “Make accusations only after conducting a detailed assessment of the facts and figures. Only then will the government be able to consider the accusations.”
Pe Myint also said there is a still a need for state-run media in Myanmar to let people know what their government and lawmakers are doing for them.
“The government and parliament have a responsibility to report back to the voters on what they are doing,” he said. “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.”
Pe Myint also blasted international reports on media freedom in the country, such as the annual World Press Freedom Index issued by Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which receives support from the French government, saying they are biased.
Myanmar’s position on RSF’s raking of 180 countries fell six places this year to 137 from 131 in 2017.
'Never friendly to the media'
More than a dozen media and civil society groups issued a statement on Wednesday opposing Pe Myint’s comments, accusing him of ignoring the findings of research-based reports by other domestic and international organizations detailing Myanmar’s declining media freedom, said the online journal Frontier Myanmar.
“I feel that the information minister has never been friendly to the media, but now he has spoken about it,” said Myint Kyaw, secretary general of the Myanmar Journalist Network.
“We’ve had a feeling that government will keep controlling state media, and it’s now clear that it will,” he said.
“Everybody knows that press freedom is getting worse as journalists are being arrested and detained, but he [Pe Myint] was trying to deny this,” said Chit Win Maung, a member of the Myanmar Press Council (MPC).
Forty-four members of the media are facing legal action in 28 cases across Myanmar, according to Frontier Myanmar.
Yangon officials in October brought an incitement case against three journalists from Myanmar’s privately owned Eleven Media Group for a report criticizing the regional government’s business dealings and budget. Though officials withdrew the case, Chief Minister Phyo Min Thien has pledged to reinstate it if the trio fails to apologize after the MPC mediates the matter.
In September, two Reuters reporters were handed seven-year sentences for possessing classified documents while reporting on the extrajudicial killings of 10 Rohingya Muslims during the crackdown.
Human rights groups and media advocates have strongly condemned their convictions as a sham and a blow to press freedom.
Unwilling to amend Media Law
When the MPC was formed as a government-appointed body under the Ministry of Information in 2012, it advocated self-censorship. But in response to local media criticism, it was shortly reformed as an independent organization.
The body is responsible for mediating press disputes, promoting journalism ethics, and protecting journalists in Myanmar. Its 15 to 30 members, each of whom serves a three-year term, include representatives from privately owned media, though government leaders can nominate members.
Following the election of 10 new members in August, MPC Chairman Thiha Saw, who also is executive editor of the privately owned English-language newspaper The Myanmar Times, urged the group to amend country’s Media Law to better protect journalists.
Myanmar’s constitution, drafted in 2008 by a military junta that ruled the country at the time, does not guarantee media freedom. The Media Law was passed in 2014 to fill this void by offering partial protection to media freedom, though it fails to guarantee the rights of journalists.
“The information ministry hasn’t demonstrated a willingness to amend the Media Law,” Myint Kyaw said. “It’s not good for the country.”
Ma Thida, the first elected president of PEN Myanmar who now serves as a board member of PEN International, a global organization that promotes freedom for writers, suggested that the MPC was not fully free of government influence.
“I don’t want it as an organization that works under the government’s control,” he said. “I want media people to appreciate themselves, adhere to media ethics, and face the problem if they want to be treated fairly.”
If this happens, then the level of trust and understanding between the government and media will grow, she said.
'The truth of the situation'
Myanmar journalism trainer Sein Win said all institutions, including the government, NGOs, and reporters have to work together to develop the media in Myanmar.
“But the information minister doesn’t think this is the case,” he said. “Instead, he said [journalists] should not point to him and the government when they don’t get everything right. It is not the way to seek a solution.”
Toe Zaw Latt, Myanmar bureau chief for Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), an independent Myanmar news service supported by Norway for more than a quarter-century, disagreed with Pe Myint’s claim that news organizations funded by foreign countries are biased.
He said that despite receiving funding from Norway, the country has never interfered in DVB’s reporting.
“If it did, we would not accept it,” he said. “We have the right to decide what we do in our media organization.”
Tharlon Zaung Htet, a member of Myanmar’s Committee for the Protection of Journalists, said that the role of privately owned media is not to promote nationalism or the country’s image, as the minister's comments suggested.
“Its responsibility is to tell people what the truth of the situation is,” he said. “The information minister asked the media to promulgate propaganda at a conference on media development.”
Kyaw Phyo Thu, news editor of the English-language version of the online journal The Irrawaddy, wrote in an editorial on Thursday that it was “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,” he wrote.
Ye Htut, Myanmar’s outspoken former information minister and presidential spokesman, said that other media organizations need to speak out about Pe Myint’s comments to prevent a backsliding of press freedom.
“If not, media reform will be reversed during the [ruling] National League for Democracy government, though this didn’t occur during Thein Sein’s government term,” he said referring to the former president who initiated limited media freedoms during his administration.
Reported by Win Ko Ko Latt and Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.