Presidential spokesman Ye Htut took the reins of Burma’s Ministry of Information last week, succeeding former Information Minister Aung Kyi, who resigned from the post on July 29. Previously serving as deputy information minister in addition to his role as presidential spokesman, Ye Htut spoke to The Irrawaddy’s Htet Naing Zaw about his approach to conflicts between media and the government, his growing cabinet workload and future plans as Burma’s new information minister.
Question: How will you handle the current tensions between media and the government? What strengths and weaknesses do you bring to the ministerial post compared with your predecessors?
Answer: The major cause of confrontation between the government and the media is a relationship problem. I’ll try to build a relationship between government and media based on ethics and mutual understanding.
I have been working at the Information Ministry and taking part in media reforms since 2005, and therefore I know the strong and weak points on both sides. I understand what is required to build a good relationship between the two. On the other hand, since I have been working long at the Information Ministry, the media may not have trust in me.
Q: The president has claimed that religious violence in Burma has been caused by the media. Why did he say that? Does the President’s Office have information about which media outlets were responsible for instigating unrest?
A: The president doesn’t mean all media; he was just referring to some irresponsible media. We have studied which media outlets have done so.
Q: With your appointment as information minister, will you continue to be the president’s spokesperson? What difficulties will you face in handling these two roles?
A: I have been assigned to remain as the president’s spokesperson. I have to give more time for these two duties and I will not be able to respond on all the functions of the ministry as I did in the past. I will only be able to answer policy questions.
Q: You have frequently called on the media to observe ethics. Does the media deserve to be harshly punished simply for making mistakes? If so, what about the government, which has faced criticism that the scope of its reforms remains too limited?
A: We are not imposing harsh penalties whenever they make a mistake. The government has never prosecuted journalists for criticizing the president or the government or for disrespecting the government. I would like The Irrawaddy to study how many cases of defamation lawsuits media outlets have filed against each other.
However, [laws are enforced] not only on journalists—even if I wrote an article that instigates [by falsely reporting on] the formation of an interim government, or I secretly entered a defense facility under a false identity, I’d be handed severe penalties.
On the other hand, I have a plan to organize seminars in cooperation with the Press Council to avoid situations where journalists break the law because they don’t know the law. I’ll also arrange seminars together with the Press Council to help government departments understand more about the nature of media.
Comparing the situations in 2010 and 2014, you can know how far the democratic reforms of the government have come. You can also compare the progress of reforms in respective sectors during the first three years of democratic transition in our country and that of Asian and African countries that have also undergone democratic transition. Then, you will know how far we have come.
Q: Can reforms under President Thein Sein be successful just by dismissing or retiring ministers?
A: The changing of ministers is a normal procedure of democratic governments. This brings about the required impetus and leadership for departmental reforms and is a key to the success of the reform process.