Thursday, September 21, 2017

Code of silence: A reporter's lot in Myanmar

Reporters seeking information from government ministries know that the task is fraught with “ifs”. If they can find a phone number and if the phone call goes through and if someone does answer and if it is indeed the correct person, chances are they will get a gruff brush-off.

All the ministries in Nay Pyi Taw have official spokespersons, as part of changes to improve transparency and media relations initiated by President U Thein Sein, but few, if any, actually speak to the press. Deputy Minister for Information U Ye Htut says attempts to encourage these spokespersons to engage with the media have largely failed due to a continued wariness of the press and a lack of access to high-level discussions.

U Ye Htut, who is also a spokesperson for the President’s Office, said that seven training sessions organised by the ministry last year have had little impact in changing the mentality of the appointed spokespeople, leaving journalists seeking official comment with few options.

“They [ministry spokespeople] are still reluctant to talk to the press,” U Ye Htut said. “They are still afraid of the press.”

This reluctance, he said, comes from a fear of being misquoted or misrepresented. But they are also given little access themselves to high-level meetings that take place within their ministries and as a result have little information to give to the media and cannot speak with confidence on policy issues.

For most of those appointed to speak to the media in Myanmar’s 30 ministries, the spokesperson position is secondary to their main role in the ministry. U Kyaw Soe from the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, for example, also serves as principal of the telecoms training centre.

The tight-lipped Ministry of Defence had a responsive spokesperson for a few brief weeks last year. However, he changed phone numbers and then stopped taking calls entirely. An unfortunate young woman in Yangon ended up with his previous phone number and found herself apologising to reporters who flooded her with inquiries about the Tatmadaw.

U Ye Htut is one of the few who regularly talks to the press. He became the President’s Office spokesperson in 2013 when the position was created but over the past year the scope of his job has widened. He has become the de facto spokesperson for the entire government.

He has been appointed media focal point on a number of key events and issues, including this year’s chairing of ASEAN and violence in Rakhine State.

The unwillingness of spokespeople to carry out their jobs has become a consistent complaint among journalists. Many find themselves repeatedly calling U Ye Htut or resorting to less conventional methods, like attempting to reach him on Facebook chat. They are also forced to seek interviews from other ministry officials who are not authorised to speak to the press, which results in a large number of unattributed comments.

“Every single ministry should have a spokesperson,” said U Thiha Saw, who is deputy chief of the Myanmar Journalists Association and member of the Press Council.

“They [the government] came up with a list, but when you call those numbers there is no answer,” he said.

Ko San Yu, Mandalay-based editor for Modern and Kumudra journals, said that he believed the lack of functioning spokespeople made it challenging to produce balanced news. The public ultimately lose out as a result.

“The lack of spokespersons means we face a lot of difficulties. There is no accuracy, no balance in our news. If there is no accuracy and no balance readers will not believe the news we cover,” said Ko San Yu.