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Throwing open Myanmar's media shutters in 100 days

Pe Myint, Myanmar's new minister of information: "My responsibility is to make sure there is communication between the government and the people."

Pe Myint, 67, Myanmar's new minister of information, hails from Rakhine state in the northwest of the country. A doctor by training, he has written 50 books of fiction and non-fiction about the country, and translated the works of others from English -- none of which got him into trouble with the authorities. He received journalism training from the Bangkok-based Indochina Media Memorial Foundation in the 1990s, and was appointed to his challenging new position by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's effective prime minister. On April 1, she instructed all her ministers to prepare 100-day plans. None has yet begun to be implemented, and exact synchronization looks unlikely. An important part of Minister Pe Myint's brief is introducing the citizens of Myanmar to some unfamiliar concepts, including freedom of speech and information, and responsive government. The minister recently talked exclusively to the Nikkei Asian Review. Edited excerpts:

Q: A month has passed since you took office. How are things going?

A: I am not used to working in an office. I used to be a writer and journalist, but I have more or less adapted.

Q: State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi instructed all ministers to make a 100-day plan.What is yours?

A: We have run a program through news and broadcast media about the 100-day plans of all the ministries. We have had meetings with the ministries, department heads, and permanent secretaries. Our aim is to tell the public about their activities -- not just words but deeds. Previously, ministries just gave out information, but we do not want one-sided relationships. We see the media as occupying the space between the government and the public. We are waiting for different ideas from the public, and inviting opinion leaders, writers, and journalists to contribute to our newspapers so the public gets to see a variety of views.

Q: With reporters recently arrested and sentenced, how much freedom of speechis there really?

A: Freedom of speech improved after the suspension of censorship in 2012, and the previous government gave out more publishing licenses. There is improved freedom of expression but, as you said, there have been some arrests and reporters sent to jail. I think this relates to the existing law as well as old enforcement practices. We need to review laws that are incompatible with freedom of expression for possible amendment or revocation. Press laws also need to be reviewed. Journalists and their associations must talk with the legislature and judiciary to provide a better understanding of the nature of journalism.

Q: You don't think the media has enough freedom of expression already?

A: No, it still needs to be improved.

Q: You are not a member of the National League for Democracy (NLD).How do you view it in government and its leader,Aung San Suu Kyi?

A: I think I share similar ideas and political views with the NLD and its leader. As a journalist, I support the transition to democracy. Politically and ideologically, I am in line with the party. As for the state counselor, most people see and accept her wholeheartedly as the national leader.

Q: The governmentis apparently not keento communicate with the local media. Why has the state counselor not given more news conferences?

A: She has met the press on several occasions. For example, after meeting dignitaries she has given small press conferences -- nothing huge.

Q: With members of the governmentremaining sosilent, local reporters have complained about transparency. What do you say?

A: Over the pastmonth, I agree with you. It has been a long transfer from the previous government, and the ministries have now chosen their spokespersons. We are now going to launch the 100-day plans, and ministers will not be silent as in the transition period.

Q: Ye Htut, the former minister of information, also served as a spokesperson for the president. Will this change now?

A: I do not think it is necessary for the information minister to be the president's spokesperson. We are giving out information about the government, and we will listen too. Previously, the ministry of information had three functions: to inform, educate, and entertain. We will do all this, but in different ways. We will not only inform the public, which voted for us, but listen to what people want to say to the government. In some countries, they try and educate people by brainwashing. We will invite people with diverse knowledge and views to contribute. Our entertainment will not be propaganda.

Q: Is it not true that developed democraciesdo not have ministries of information?

A: You can easily understand that any office, any organization, any company dealing with the public needs to communicate. You have to explain what you are doing. The government is also an organization doing various things, and it needs a mechanism. The government before the last one monopolized information. There were only a few journals, but now you can publish a journal or newspaper. What we need to do now is open up the broadcast media.

Q: Are reforms progressing too slowly?

We are in a state of transition to democracy, and it is an ongoing process. In the interim, we may not be up to full democracy, and if we look at country rankings for democracy, we are still lower down. We have to improve freedom of expression, and the quality of democracy, so things may not yet be satisfactory.

Q: At the news conference, did you say there should be more competition between state and private media?

A: No, I just told them that we are not competing with them economically or in other ways. My responsibility is to make sure there is communication between the government and the people.

Interviewed by Nikkei staff writer Thurein Hla Htway

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