Myanmar journalists called on Tuesday for more cooperation from officials in the new civilian government during a two-day media development conference in the commercial capital Yangon.
About 300 members of the national and international press, civil society representatives, and government leaders discussed problems facing the media, especially the obstacles reporters encounter with officials and the military under State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government which came to power in April.
Myint Kyaw, a member of the Myanmar Press Council trade union who experienced censorship and intimidation under the country’s previous military junta, said the outstanding thing about the conference has been that military officials and parliamentary committee members—two groups that are often tight-lipped when it comes to dealing with reporters—attended to discuss media issues.
“We now have some improvements in getting information, but it is not still what we expected,” he said. “As all journalists know, government authorities don’t answer, don’t pick up the phone, and don’t give information even for some data they can share.”
Swe Win, senior correspondent at the independent news service Myanmar Now, said most government departments and ministries believe that the news they release is enough for the public to know.
“Before, the government hardly ever released news,” he said. “Now they release some and think it is enough. [But] they still need to be aware that people should know more about the information they receive as well.”
Others lamented that authorities don’t release information or give access to reporters in restive areas of the country such as Kachin, Rakhine, and Shan states where clashes involving ethnic armed groups occur.
“When we talk about press freedom, we should also talk about the right to get information,” said Tow Zaw Latt, the Thailand bureau chief for Democratic Voice of Burma.
“We still can’t go to the conflict areas such as Kachin and Rakhine and are unable to get news—and on military issues as well,” he said.
Tin Maung Oo, a lawmaker who sits on the Commission for the Assessment of Legal Affairs and Special Issues, believes that those who serve in government should engage with the media when they are called upon to do so.
“People say the media are the eyes and ears of the state,” he said. “In my opinion, media is not only the state’s ears and eyes, but also heart and brain. The biggest challenge for the media is that government authorities don’t want to answer when media question them. We have some authorities who want to answer the media, but this is still rare. Government service should change their mindset.”
Information Minister Pe Myint was scheduled to give the closing speech, but he didn’t show up, according to some attendees.
No new steps forward
The media was severely restricted under the military junta that ruled Myanmar for 50 years until 2011, when a quasi-civilian government backed by the military came to power under Thein Sein. As president, he loosened restrictions on the media as part of wider reforms by eliminating the country’s censorship board and allowing exiled media organizations to operate in Myanmar.
The new government appears to not be taking any new steps towards improving relations with the media.
Phyo Min Thein, chief minister of Yangon region, threatened on Tuesday to sue the Daily Eleven newspaper owned by Eleven Myanmar media group for publishing an editorial on Sunday that he was given a $100,000 watch by an unnamed drug tycoon who was recently released from jail, then won a tender during the new government’s term to build a city transit project.
Phyo Min Thien said he will resign if the media can prove that he is corrupt, but that the newspaper will have to take responsibility for its actions if it cannot provide evidence.
In another case, government spokesman Zaw Htay called out a Myanmar Times reporter on Oct. 28 on social media, accusing her of bias in her report of the previous day on alleged rapes of Muslim women by the military in Rakhine state.
The English-language newspaper then sacked Fiona MacGregor because the rape allegations story and other unidentified articles she had written “breached company policy by damaging national reconciliation and the paper’s reputation,” MacGregor wrote in a Facebook post.
Reuters had also reported on the rapes.
Reported by Win Naung Toe, Kyaw Zaw Win and Wai Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.