Union Minister for Information U Pe Myint in Naypyitaw in February 2017. (Pic: Swe Win/Myanmar Now)
NAYPYITAW - The minister for information, Pe Myint, has angered media freedom groups with a speech in which he suggested journalists should be patriotic and help to improve Myanmar’s image.
The minister, himself a former journalist and acclaimed writer, also hit back at criticism of Myanmar’s shrinking press freedoms during the speech in Naypyitaw on Wednesday.
Critics of the NLD-led government’s record on the media should compare the situation now to that of the previous military-backed government, he told an audience at the seventh annual Media Development Conference.
Sixteen media and civil society organisations released a statement condemning the minister’s remarks.
His suggestion that reporters should put patriotism first is “against journalism ethics and hinders press freedom,” read the statement, which was signed by groups including PEN Myanmar and the Myanmar Journalist Network.
The minister was also criticised for defending the role of Myanmar’s much-maligned state media, which he said was important because it “reports the activities of the government and the parliament to the public”.
Under Pe Myint’s leadership, state media repeatedly attacked foreign news outlets for what it described as biased coverage of the military crackdown against Muslim-majority Rohingya last year.
He also used the speech, titled ‘Building effective partnerships in Myanmar’s media development’, to question the editorial independence of the country’s private news outlets.
“How much can an editor defend his stand while being influenced by the media owner?” he asked. “And how much can this owner resist the agenda of their big advertisers?”
U Kyaw Sann Min, deputy editor-in-chief of The Voice Daily, said he wondered whether the minister actually understood what journalism is, or whether he was pretending to be ignorant.
“I think he himself must be fully aware of the answers to his own questions,” he told Myanmar Now. “Does he really not know or is there some misunderstanding?”
U Zeya, a member of the Myanmar Press Council, said that as Pe Myint was now in government he is no longer thinking like a journalist.
The joint statement said: “The purpose of an independent media is to check and balance the other three pillars of a democracy, hence if the government is taking on the role of the media, it only means propaganda and cannot check government wrongdoing.”
It also suggested that the minister’s concerns about the independence of the private media should also apply to state-run media, since these outlets are accountable only to the government and the military despite being financed with public money.
Myanmar fell six places in the World Press Freedom Index this year to 137 out of 180 countries, partly as a result of the arrest and detention of Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.
Pe Myint said in the speech that he doubted the independence and objectivity of media freedom indices. He cited analysis by German news outlet Deutsche Welle, which argued that such rankings are biased and fail to define media freedom in exact terms.
(Editing by Joshua Carroll)