By NYAN HLAING LYNN | FRONTIER
Information Minister U Pe Myint is a doctor-turned-journalist who was a critic of the previous government’s media policy. An ethnic Rakhine born at Thandwe in 1949, the former vice chair of the Myanmar Press Council is a renowned author who won a national literature award winner in 1995. Pe Myint faces big challenges and some big questions in his new role, including a public debate over whether the role of the Information Ministry can be justified. Frontier spoke to Pe Myint in an interview that touched on his plans for reforming the media, the competitive advantage of state-run publications over their private sector counterparts and his top priority as minister.
Why did you accept the appointment as Information Minister?
The new government wanted me to participate in the implementation of media policy. The position provided me with an opportunity to contribute towards the common goal, so I accepted.
What are your plans for the ministry?
We need to maintain the Ministry of Information so that the government can keep the people informed about its activities. As a democratic government, elected by the people, it needs to report to the people what it is doing.
At the same time, there has been controversy about whether a democratic government should have a Ministry of Information. The negative attitude towards the ministry stems from the fact that the government information services used to provide one-sided information and was able to suppress the views of the opposition as well as different opinions by censoring private media through the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division [an agency under the ministry that was abolished in August 2012].
These are the reasons why the people scorn and dislike the Ministry of Information. However, a government needs to inform the people. As a democratic government, it should not be one-sided. It needs to provide information, including the differing opinions and criticisms of the people.
The previous government reformed the ministry to some extent. We intend to reform it so it becomes a people’s media service that will include opinions from members of the public. Such a service would enable people from every corner of the country to freely express their views about issues and concerns in their areas, including those involving local authorities. It would also enable experts and think-tanks to express their different opinions on politics, the economy and social issues and to criticise government policy.
The change of government coincided with immediate, significant changes in state-owned media that raised concerns in the commercial media sector. You have promised that state-run media will not compete against the private sector. How will you achieve that?
The main thing is advertising revenue. State-owned media also needs ads because it cannot depend on taxpayers’ money alone. So it needs an appropriate amount of ads. But state media will not compete against private media in an all-out way. You will see it gradually.
What do you mean?
There will be an appropriate ratio between the number of pages with ads and those without ads. On TV also, there will be a limited number of ads. On the other hand, information needs to reach the people, so lay-out and presentation needs to be attractive. State-owned media must be economically viable but it need not compete with private media in terms of profit.
It is a widely held view in the private media sector that state-owned media should no longer exist. What is your opinion?
Companies, businesses, organisations and institutions are all involved in communications and information work to publicise their activities. They use newspapers or other media to do this. Similarly, a government needs to do the same using newspapers, gazettes, radio and TV.
Does that mean there will be state-owned newspapers for another five years?
It cannot be said that the present situation will prevail for another five years. For the time being, it is needed so we do it. Later, depending on necessity, there may be changes that will depend on the situation at the time and future technology. The ministry does the work of providing information, education and entertainment. This work is the responsibility of the government and must continue, but attitudes and policies will differ from those of former times.
How will you address the inequality between state-owned and commercial media in access to government information?
I plan to improve access to government news for the private media. It will involve assigning a staff member in each ministry to answer questions and provide information to the media. I am also thinking of inviting ministries to hold regular press conferences. The right to information will also be improved. Journalists will have more contact with government departments, not only at press conferences but also at other times.
What is the future of the Media Law?
Some points in the law need amendment. I must discuss this with associates in the media sector. It would be helpful if the men of the media world met to discuss and decide on what should be amended and how. It will speed up the job. I will assist as best I can.
Private sector media companies say the Broadcasting Law enacted last August also needs amending.
That’s right. Both laws and regulations have some points that are not satisfactory. It must be improved. The TV law contains some points that are not acceptable. It must be reviewed. When this issue is handled, I will see to it.
Does the ministry plan to submit to parliament a draft freedom of information law?
The right to information is a basic right of citizens in a democratic country. But we must take the present situation into consideration and decide the extent to which to put it into practice.
During your career as a writer you strived to upgrade Myanmar literature, including children’s literature. It is a challenging period for the literary sector. Do you plan to support it?
When I was doing this in the past I was not alone. I worked with my literary colleagues and literary associations. I will continue doing this. Because of my background, literature is the field in which I am most interested. There are ways to promote children’s literature other than literary festivals and exhibitions and I intend to do that.
What reform will be your top priority during your term as minister?
One of the key reforms is to make the information service people-oriented.
Do you mean the state-owned media?
Yes. And the media sector as a whole, [with] improvement in freedom of expression, and the right to information without any hindrance and obstacle. I intend to work in cooperation with the private sector to develop the media sector.
What will be the main difference with the previous Information Ministry?
It will be differences in policy. The present government is people-oriented. Compared to the former time, everything it does will reflect the desire of the people. This will become obvious in everything it does.
Your predecessor as minister, U Ye Htut, also served as presidential spokesperson. Will you have that role?
At the moment, [former President’s Office director] U Zaw Htay, is serving as spokesman for the President though it is not the same job as that performed by the former spokesman. I think the position of presidential spokesman may no longer be needed.
Photo: U Pe Myint speaks to the press in Nay Pyi Taw soon after he was nominated as Myanmar’s next Information Minister. (Aung Shine Oo / Frontier)