Saturday, February 13, 2016

Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘It’s Fair to Say That President U Thein Sein Is Burma’s Reform Icon’

Image from entry, with caption: The Irrawaddy speaks with Minister of Information Ye Htut about President Thein Sein’s five-year tenure and the media’s role in the country.

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy. This week I will speak with the sole spokesperson for President U Thein Sein as well as Minister of Information U Ye Htut. We will talk about the successes and failures of President U Thein Sein over the past five years, and if the state-run propaganda newspapers of the Ministry of Information will be needed once the democratic government has fully come to power. We will also talk about [Ye Htut’s] plans for after he retires. I’m Irrawaddy English Editor Kyaw Zwa Moe. ...
KZM: Why has the Ministry of Information still existed throughout the reform process? Why do state-run newspapers, which are widely regarded as propaganda for the government, still exist?
YH: It is because you private media outlets do not tell all the things that we want to tell the people. That’s why we need to be here.
KZM: But doesn’t that look like propaganda to a democratic society?
YH: Every government wants to convince its people of its policies. This has also been true for the US government. This was explicitly termed “propaganda” in the past. It was later changed to “public relations,” and then to “public diplomacy.” In essence, every government has to mobilize public support and has to use the media in doing so. In countries where media pluralism flourishes, [the government] uses private media outlets. In countries like ours, however, where private media don’t report the things they don’t want to, there must be a government-run newspaper and media, I think. That’s why we exist.
KZM: But doesn’t this tarnish the image of democracy in a country that’s in transition?
YH: Rather than arguing about if the existence of an organization is in line with democracy or not, I would focus on whether the existence of that organization contributes to the flourishing of democracy. There are [similar] organizations in different forms under different names in different countries. In my view, the existence of the Ministry of Information does not affect the development of media or Burma’s democratic transition between 2010 and 2015. Frankly, that you can talk to me now, face to face, is only because our Ministry of Information invited you and recommended you for an entry visa.
KZM: The Ministry of Information abolished pre-publication censorship in 2012, providing a great deal of press freedom. But your ministry could have granted greater press freedom. Why didn’t you do that?
YH: We need to strike a balance between taking big steps and making sure each step we take is concrete. There is huge room for improvement in terms of the legal and market conditions of our media environment, and we—both state-run and private media—have yet to improve ourselves much in terms of ethics and expertise. So again, we are just trying to make sure each step is concrete. The president has said that taking fast steps will help us win credit, but if the consequences of being fast can affect the country’s stability, we will sacrifice popularity to focus on what should get done. ...
YH: I have trained the state-run media how to acquire the ethics and expertise, which are needed to create public service media. My staff members have improved from only being able to put out [in newspapers] the news given to them to making reports from various angles. This is what I have done for the ministry as a whole. For individuals, I have trained them to be able to work shoulder to shoulder with their peers in the world of private media, even if the Ministry of Information and state-run newspapers are abolished. I believe that my staff personnel will be able to survive in the media world whether or not the ministry continues to exist or not. And I’m proud of myself for having done this. ...

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