Letter marking Press Freedom Day

Writer: 
Nay Tun Naing

May 3 is the World Press Freedom Day. We usually tell Myanma Press Freedom Day. We did not have a change in Myanma press freedom arena within five years. Myanmar stands at ninth place in poor press freedom according to the CPJ. The Freedom House stated that Myanmar included in the list of countries that have not press freedom.

The index is lower than the original status. Freedom House stated that the media status is lower. The Freedom House presented the two situations. The first thing was that two controversial media bills were approved. Moreover, the people are emphasizing the preparations made to enter the serious laws in the military junta.

The second thing is that preparations were made to present sensitive laws of previous military junta laws to the parliament.  The second thing is Myanmar media is going ahead. But it is financially struggling in all sides. But the journalists pointed out that their oversea journey was restricted and they felt being oppressed.   

The two points they mentioned are very similar to the situations happening in Myanmar. Like them, the CPJ and the RSF and the WAN-IFRA issued necessary statements.

Three inferior points

Press freedom depends on whether it is independent media. Also in Myanmar it is also practiced. The international media has three points as to Myanma press freedom. The first thing is that most cronies own most media business. It is the media monopoly. It makes independent media stand in a difficult situation. The second point is that the ministry of information is commercially oppressing private media. The third thing is the media.  Myanmar media has three laws—the printing and publishing law, the media law and the broadcasting law. These three laws are in controversial situation. But the public service media law was withdrawn. These three media laws cannot give protection to the journalists in an effective manner. There are some examples in this regard.

Relaxation of media control and oppression  

In the time of Thein Sein administration, the government needed to pay attention to the media situation. Thein Sein’s speeches were full of credits till 2012. But in 2013, the government moved bad steps to the media.

Ye Htut became the spokesperson of the president on January 8 in 2013. He faced media disputes. Minister Aung Kyi retired on July 29 in 2014. He was substituted with Ye Htut. Ye Htut became familiar with these three oppressing media laws. Myanmar journalists struggled for media freedom within past three years. Myanmar experienced the worst situation in the press freedom in 2010. The ministry of information cancelled the press scrutiny board on August 20 in 2012. But there were laws that control publishers. The information submitted the bill of printing and publishing to the parliament on March 7 in 2013. But the journalists objected to it.

The signs of the government wishing to control the media were found especially after Ye Htut takes the office.  In 2010, Myanmar stood the worst place in the press freedom and it was the lowest ranking in the press freedom compared to the Southeast Asian countries. The information abolished the printing and publishing law on August 20 in 2012. The ministry allowed the private media without putting forward to the press scrutiny board on March 7 in 2013. At the same time, the ministry prepared to take steps to extend the State-owned media.

The Myanma Alin daily was changed in colour on October 18 in 2012, the New Light of Myanmar daily on December 5 in and Kyehmon (Mirror) daily on December 15. All the State-owned dailies remained unchanged in the price. In 2013, eight pages were added to the daily newspaper and then sixteen to them. Ye Htut, the information minister, took the advantage before the private newspapers appeared.

The struggle of the private daily newspapers   

The press situation in 2013 was not better than that in 2012. The private newspapers appeared on April 1 in 2013. There were 33 newspapers until 2015. The Shwe Naing Gan Thit newspaper was one of the first four newspapers. But it stopped its publication for hardly one year. More than fifteen newspapers did not come out. Some newspapers were controlled by cronies.

For example, the people did not know who owned the Democracy Today newspaper at that time. But the people knew Kyaw Win of Shwe Thanlwin Sky Net who supported the Democracy Today newspaper. From 2012 to 2015, the information ministry allowed the private media to publish 33 newspapers, 404 journals, 317 magazines and 897 general kinds.

The information ministry practiced the method of taking advantage over private newspapers in the advertising role so as to oppress the private newspapers. The ministry reduced its advertising rate from December of 2014 to April of 2015. The ministry made three time reduction in the advertising rate and monopolized it. Some advertisement paid with US dollars was changed into Myanmar currency.

At the same time, the ministry shouted the people-centered policy. At that time, the State-owned newspapers took advantages in advertising market compared to the private newspapers. The ministry strengthened its media within five years spending public funds.

The ministry bought two coloured printing presses of 4 Hi Tower 2 Unit, two of 4 Hi Tower 4 Unit, five computers to plate (CTP), 35 cameras and 145 computers. Spending public funds, the ministry opened sub-printing houses in Mawlamyine, Monywa and Sittway.

Putting pressure on private media

The ministry put pressure on the private media. The ministry limited to private media in covering news. At first Thein Sein tried to enact the media law by spending K50 million. He tried to enact the media law. The journalists objected these two laws. Despite seeing objections, the parliament approved these two laws. The Myanmar Press Council including Dr Pe Myint, the current information minister became involved in the situation.

The journalist cannot attain protection despite the media law has been enacted. Especially, the Section 21 and 23 of the Media Law are very controversial.

The Section 9 of the Media Law said that any media can lodge a complaint to the Myanmar Press Council if duty and ethics are violated. The Section 23 of the Media Law said that if negotiation does not reach the agreement, a lawsuit can be filed at a court. If a journalist wants to be sued, a complaint can be lodged to the Myanmar Press Council (MPC). But, the journalists are being sued and imprisoned.

In 2013, Ma Khaing of Eleven Media Group was sued under Section 441, Section 500 and 294 and she got three months imprisonment. On April 7 in 2014, Zaw Pe, the DVB reporter, got one year imprisonment after being sued under Section 353 and Section 441. Five journalists Tin Hsan, Ya Zar Oo, Paing Thet Kyaw, Sithu Soe and Lu Maw Naing were charged under State Secret Act and they got ten years imprisonment.

Kyaw Min Khaing, Yin Min Tun, Min Wa Than, Win Tin and Thura Aung of Bi Moontenay News Journal were sentenced to two years imprisonment. They were sued under 505 (b). Similarly, Than Htaik Thu, the chief editor and Hsan Moe Tun, the deputy chief reporter were sentenced to two months under Section 500.

The information ministry sued CEO Dr Than Htut Aung, the managing director, the chief editor, the deputy chief editor and the executive editor of the Eleven Media Group in Nay Pyi Taw. Moreover, the ministry sued 11 persons of Myanmar Thandawhsint (Herald) Journal. All the charges were not made by the Media Law. For example, the media law already exists when the Bi Moontenay News Journal faces the trial. But five members of the journal were sued by other laws.

It can be said that the MPC did not carry apparent tasks within five years. No one objected to the oppressing of the journalists. Despite discussing with the information ministry, the two controversial media laws cannot give protection to the journalists. At the same time, no one trusted the Myanmar Press Council. Ko Par Gyi, the freelance reporter, was killed. Similarly, Dr Than Htut Aung, the CEO of the Eleven Media Group was attacked in public place. The case is related to Tatmadaw (armed forces). For that reason, the international journalist organisations strongly opposed that. But the information ministry did not mention anything in this regard.

The information ministry banned Dr Than Htut Aung from going abroad. The ministry sued 17 editors of the Eleven Media Group.  Such situations like the charge against the journalists happened when Ye Htut became the minister. Ye Htut tried to approve the Media Law as he liked despite having objections. The information ministry led by Ye Htut sued the journalists taking advantage of the law.

Crony, government and military-run media

The government, the military and cronies are monopolising the country's broadcast media making best use of the existing laws and public funds, while private print media are struggling for their survival.

Under the Information Ministry are Myanmar Radio and Television (MRTV) and print media such as Myanmar News Agency (MNA), The Mirror Daily and The Myanma Alin Daily. The New Light of Myanmar (English version) is now running on a joint venture basis by changing its name into The Global New Light of Myanmar.

Under the military are Myawady (MWD) TV and Thazin FM radio as broadcasting media and The Myawady Daily as a print media.

In the broadcast media run by cronies there are only two leading crony businessmen. Win Maw from Forever Group has the permit to run MRTV-4, free Channel 7 and pay 4TV. He also owns Mandalay FM while Pyinsawady FM is reportedly close to him.

The other crony is Shwe Thanlwin Kyaw Win. He is running free TV channels namely MITV, Channel 9 and MNTV. He is permitted to run commercial Sky Net TV and Shwe FM. In the print media also, he is related to Democracy Today newspaper.

Most other cronies are also permitted to run FM radios. Bagan FM is run by Tay Za's Htoo Group of Companies, Padamya FM by Shwe Taung Co and Cherry FM by Khin Shwe's Zaykaba family and Thura Shwe Mann's son Toe Naing Mann. City FM is run by Yangon City Development Committee and some private firms.

Cronies-owned media under no control

The Information Ministry resorted various ways to control independent private print media but broadcasting media run by cronies were free from control.

Meanwhile, cronies-run broadcasting companies enjoyed special rights and privileges but failed to pay the amount of tax they should have paid.

Sky Net TV, which is operating with the hired state-owned property, earns Ks 36 billion a year on average. However, the state receives only Ks 0.48 billion in tax revenue. This has resulted from the remaking of the contract under the former Information Minister Ye Htut.

Likewise, Forever Group owner Win Maw had close ties with the successive information ministers. Some family members and relatives of those ministers were appointed as members of board of directors and shareholders in his companies.

Speaking about Forever, we have to point out the taxes he has paid. More than US$ 220 million were earned from advertisements in Myanmar's print and broadcast media last year.  About 70 percent was from the broadcast media with the amount of over US$ 154 million.

In this 70 percent, Channel 7 and MRTV-4 owned by Forever Win Maw earned most, followed by MRTV run by the Information Ministry and military-run MWD TV.

Forever Group must have paid over Ks 5 billion if it earned over US$ 100 million. The calculation was based on TV commercials income only. Mandalay FM and 4TV were not included. If such an amount of tax was paid, Win Maw would have been on the list of top tax payers.

The company was not on the lists of 2011-2012 and 2012-2013. In 2013-2014, it was on the list of 1,000 tax payers. It was not on the list of 2014-2015 either.  

Both private broadcasting companies working with the Information Ministry have won government's favour over the past few years.

Forever and Sky Net are also allowed to hire state-owned property such as machinery rooms, towers and land areas at very cheap prices.

Forever Group was permitted to rent two-acre land in the compound of Yayku broadcasting station for Ks 5 million per month. It has rented the MEP site on Shin Saw Pu Road in Myaynigone for Ks 5 million per month.

Studying the above points, private media in Myanmar are found to be struggling while cronies-owned media are enjoying special privileges.   

Anyhow, former information minister Ye Hut is responsible for their privileges and the losses of the country. For the cases where state funds were lost, ministerial probe is not enough. Investigations by the Auditor General's Office and Anti-Corruption Commission are also necessary.

In such cases, Ye Htut and Tint Swe (former deputy minister) are most responsible. Paik Htwe (another former deputy minister) did not reportedly get involved much in those cases.

The Broadcasting Law designed to strengthen the influence of cronies

The Broadcasting Law was passed on August 28, 2015. This law is also designed to strengthen the influences of crony businessmen, not to encourage more independent private media.

I have three points to talk about this law. First, it is the protection of interests of government- run media and TV channels owned by cronies. Under the limitation of air waves, MRTV, MWD, Sky Net and Forever hold the half. Others must compete for the other half. It is totally unfair.

The second point is that with a lack of categories in granting licenses, the already licensed firms have the chance to operate more and various channels. Moreover, richen men are allowed to run unlimited. They have the upper hand over newcomers.

The issue of cross-ownership is the third point. Under the law, a person running print media has only the right to invest 30 percent in broadcasting media and vice versa. It is unfair. For example, Sky Net TV is close to Democracy Today newspaper. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Information is running broadcasting media as well as three newspapers. It is the attempt to prevent private media from making a full investment in a new broadcasting service.

What's more, the whole broadcasting media will be controlled by the government as well as the Broadcasting Council formed with those lacking broadcasting experience. They will issue broadcasting licenses.

This is why international journalist organisations and experts in the local media are demanding the law amendment.

Drafting all the three media laws including the broadcasting law started when ex-minister Aung Kyi took responsibility of the information ministry. However, his involvement in those issues was not reported.

So, the legislative part is also accountable to Ye Htut.

Budget losses resulting from propaganda

Under the Thein Sein government, the stances of state-run media and the Information Ministry did not change. Like under the military government, they spread their propaganda. More public funds were used for their continued propaganda. This can be found in the original budget accounts.

The ministry asked for over Ks 26 billion in 2011-2012 fiscal year, over Ks 48 billion in 2012-2013, over Ks 82 billion in 2013-2014, over Ks 84 billion in 2014-2015, over Ks 70 billion in 2015-2016 and over Ks 61 billion in 2016-2017.

However state-run newspapers say they make profits, the ministry faces budget deficit every year. Its budget deficit was over Ks 11 billion in 2011-2012, over Ks 19 billion in 2012-2013, over Ks 52 billion in 2013-2014, over Ks 56 billion in 2014-2015 and over Ks 29 billion in 2015-2016.

Some people therefore voiced in the time of Thein Sein's government that the Information Ministry and its dailies should no longer exist as they spread government propaganda by suing a large sum of public funds.

But, they do exist and continue spending public funds. Under a business strategy, they never give private print media the chance to survive well. They even applied pressure through lackeys of the ministry.

Aung San Suu Kyi's stances

Chairperson of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) Aung San Suu Kyi (currently, the state counsellor) publicised her stances.

In RFA's interview with her titled: "Difficult journey of democracy and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi conducted on December 30 last year, she said she would handle the issue as quickly as possible because government newspapers are not in conformity with democratic system.

"I don't think government-owned newspapers are suitable for democracy. But we cannot do it overnight. We will do it after consultation. But I don't want to prolong it much. Everything will be OK with this country only if we do democratic practices."

Due to her comments, questions were raised as to whether the information ministry would exist or not under the NLD government.

A letter hailing World Press Freedom Day

The Ministry of Information was on the list when the NLD government announced government ministries.

Dr. Pe Myint, who led the Press Council (Interim) that faced criticism for receiving a donation of Ks 50 million from the Thein Sein government and got involved in the coordinated efforts for drafting the controversial media law, was chosen as information minister.

The publications of The Mirror Daily and The Myanma Alin continue. In the time of former minister Ye Htut also, government newspapers boasted of public-centred reform. No success was achieved, however.

Dr. Pe Myint promised that state-run dailies would not economically compete with private newspapers. Instead, they will try to serve public interest, he said.  Anyway, I want to urge him to take an example of his predecessor Ye Hut.  

Ye Htut published his newspapers at a price of Ks 50 per piece that does not cover its production cost at all so that private media could not survive in such a situation. He reduced the rates of advertisement fees three times causing a great blow to the private media. Dr. Pe Myint, who used to engage in the business of private journal, has already known this very well. So, I think he will make a change.

Another point is the part of legislation. Dr. Pe Myint knows the conditions of the three media laws enacted when Ye Hut took office. Both the Printing and Publishing Enterprise Law and News Media Law must be amended so that they can become really protective of journalists rather than giving opportunities. It is not necessary to say what provisions must be amended as he already knows details.

For the emergence of a fairly competitive market and independent private broadcasting stations, the amendment to the Broadcasting Law is a must.

But in this context, we have to watch steps being taken by Sky Net these days. It has already approached the NLD before it came to power. Particularly, Dr. Tin Myo Win from NLD Health Network and some CEC members have friendly relations with Shwe Thanlwin Co.

Sky Net donated Ks 130 million for the performances organised by the NLD Health Network for its funds in 2012. Moreover, it bought a fur sweater made by Aung San Suu Kyi for Ks 45.2 million at an auction. Music concerts to raise NLD funds were usually held at Shwe Htut Tin sports ground owned by Shwe Thanlwin.

Later on, Aung San Suu Kyi did not reportedly accept donations from Shwe Thanlwin. A case happened during Thingyan festival in Nay Pyi Taw in which Sky Net water-throwing pavilion was alleged to have handed a gift of Ks 5 million to the personal assistant of a very important person.

After the warning (issued by the NLD government), the gift money was contributed for digging five old lakes in five villages of Thanetpin Township. In the meantime, reports emerged that Sky Net donated Ks 40 million for repairing and upgrading 40 lakes in other villages of the same township. Whether there is any connection between the K 5-million gift and the K 40-million donation is unknown.

Dr. Pe Myint attended the opening of Nay Pyi Taw Sky Net pavilion. When he served in the interim Press Council, he had close ties with council members representing Sky Net and Forever Group.

Despite that, I don't think there will be delays in amending the Broadcasting Law.

What the people from the media industry want to know now is the policy of Dr. Pe Myint's ministry. They want to clearly know what he will do and how he will amend the draconian laws in order that government newspapers cannot become commercially competitive with private ones. They don't expect generalisation from him like in interviews. These all must not be demanded by private media but be done by the ministry itself.

At this juncture, the budget of the Information Ministry must be cut. Despite taking about profits, government newspapers will surely make losses if we add other expenses in purchases of machines and equipment, opening office buildings and sub-printing houses in other towns, maintenance and allowances for the staff.

When the budget is to be cut, assessment is necessary how the previous government spent on its propaganda efforts. In the time of former minister Ye Htut, there was great doubt over propaganda even after he was alleged to be propagandist professor Dr. Seik Phwar. Till today, the ministry will still have those close to propagandists of the previous government. If scrutiny could be carried out on how budgets were drawn for those propagandists and how many staffs were appointed, we will find ways to reduce budgets.

Once Dr. Pe Myint's information policy continues to be the same as that of Ye Htut, independent private media will still have to struggle. I hereby write a letter to hail World Press Freedom Day as I see no hope of improved Myanmar's press freedom index among the Asean community.