Mizzima sat down with US Ambassador Scot Marciel this week to discuss the US position on media freedom in Myanmar and around the world ahead of World Press Freedom Day, May 3. Washington has long promoted press freedom and freedom of expression around the world. But with a change of government, and the combative relationship US President Donald Trump has displayed concerning the media at home, there has been uncertainty as to the current stand of the American government on press freedom around the world.
In the following interview, Mizzima Editor-in-Chief Soe Myint asks the ambassador for his views.
May 3 is World Press Freedom Day that we celebrate. All reports are showing that media freedom, not only in certain countries but in the world at large, has been declining and worrisome. What are your views on these reports?
Well, first I think these reports are important and we should take them seriously. I think it is always a struggle, it is always a battle, to obtain that freedom for journalists, and so I think it is useful for people to see these reports, to have a debate and to do what we all can to ensure that media freedom remains strong.
What about Myanmar. Before we go into the state of media freedom in Myanmar, I would like to start with what do you hope for the media in the country?
For media in Myanmar, well first it is up to the Myanmar people to set the goals for their own country. But certainly, as a friend of the people of Myanmar, we would like to see a strong independent, vibrant media so that the people of the country have access to good and credible information, and have a choice where they can get that information. But we think that media freedom is a fundamental pillar of democracy and is essential for Myanmar’s democratic success.
I am asking this because Washington from government to government has been a strong supporter of press freedom throughout the world. You now have a new administration led by US President Donald Trump who the media largely see as having a competitive relationship. Do you think there will be a change or shift in Washington’s support for media freedom in other countries and policy and relationship with the media at home?
Well, what I can tell you is our support for media freedom in Myanmar and around the world remains very, very strong. We continue to believe that media freedom is essential, hugely important, in our own country as well as abroad. So that is not changing.
You have seen the changes in Myanmar in the last few years. We now have a government led by the National League for Democracy, the first civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi and President Htin Kyaw after many decades of military rule. There are some remarks that even when compared with the previous government there has not been progressing in terms of media freedom, especially during the last one year. These remarks come from local stakeholders and the international community. How do you view the shift from the previous government to the current government?
Well the first thing I would say is that when I look at media freedom here and now, compared to when I came to visit your country 10 years ago or more, there has been a dramatic improvement. I think everybody would agree on that. But I think that progress doesn’t continue in a straight, continuing fashion. There will be steps forward and backward.
I think with all my discussions with the NLD leadership, they continue to stress their strong commitment to freedom of the press. But I would agree that there is still more work to be done. There are still some limits on the freedom of the press that I hope the government will address, including 66 (d) of the Telecommunications Law, which in my view is impinging on freedom of the press and freedom of expression.
Have you been able to convey this message – for example, you are mentioning 66 (d) – to the government?
Yes, I talked to the government on a whole range of issues. I talk very openly as a friend and have raised these issues.
As journalists in Myanmar, we have two specific issues, one when we cover the conflict and fighting, and second when we cover the issues in Rakhine State, even the issue of covering “Bengali” vs “Rohingya.” So these are our day-to-day pressure and reality. What do you think? How do you view the role of media and journalists in covering these specific issues?
Well, I think any time you have conflict, it is very complicated for journalists to be involved. We think that access to the media, as much as possible, is very important, so that the people of Myanmar get accurate, timely information, whether it is in the Rakhine State or the conflict in the northeast. So we do think this is very important, and it is important over time, we hope for the government, government officials, and media to be able to work out a way of working together, not for the government to control the media but to allow access as much as possible.
Like for example in conflict areas, it is very much to do with the Myanmar Armed Forces, how they see the media, how they see the situation, so what are the kind of discussions you have been having with the leaders of the Myanmar Armed Forces in dealing with such issues?
We have been talking with the Tatmadaw about these issues and have even had some discussions with them about how we, our military works with journalists to try to provide access with them So we are continuing to have those discussions with them and we hope over time the Tatmadaw will adjust its approach to be more willing to work with journalists.
With regards to US-Myanmar relations, there have been reports, some of us have covered, that the relationship between the West, especially the United States and the Myanmar current government has been slow in the last one year or so because of certain issues. Can you tell us the current state of US-Myanmar relations, especially as we have a new government?
Well, I would say the US-Myanmar relationship is very strong and it has progressed significantly over the last year. We announced a US-Myanmar partnership late last year, which was a big step forward. We are expanding the relationship in almost every area – in economics, in diplomacy, working together on health issues, education issues, we have Peace Corps volunteers in Myanmar – so it has expanded quite a bit, it is a very good open relationship, in fact right now, this week, you have in Washington the National Security Advisor who is joining (US) Secretary (of State Rex) Tillerson’s meeting with all the ASEAN foreign ministers. You have the Deputy Minister of Home Affairs in Washington having a series of meetings, and we have a delegation of members of government, parliament and civil society in Waddington talking about federalism. That is just the week. And the new administration has made very clear when I was back in Washington a few months ago that it will continue to strongly support Myanmar’s reform efforts and continue to build its relationship. So, we are very pleased with the state of the relationship.
It is very interesting to hear the government’s security advisor is in Washington. What is the scope of discussion, especially in terms of security?
Well, he has gone to represent the Myanmar government at a meeting that Secretary of State Tillerson is hosting for the foreign ministers of all the ASEAN countries. And, I don’t want to speak for the Myanmar government, but I think with the State Counsellor (Aung San Suu Kyi) is traveling in Europe at the same time, the Myanmar government decided the security advisor was the best person to represent them. So, this is going to be a discussion with ASEAN as a whole. I don’t know the specifics of what the secretary and the national security advisor will discuss and what other meetings he will have in Washington. But I think again it highlights that this is now a normalized relationship and these discussions we will have quite regularly.
When we talk about security, the peace process also needs to be one of the issues that I would like to discuss. What do you think of the peace process which has seen some ups and downs and the State Counsellor is also running the 21st Century Panglong Conference?
We are strong supporters. Every country needs peace in order to prosper. So, we very much want to see peace, we know it is extremely difficult just because there are so many different groups involved and there is such a long history of conflict that it is not easy to get to peace. But I think Myanmar has an opportunity now. And having more groups sign onto the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement is an important step. But of course, it is just a step and it would lead to the national political dialogue which we think will probably take some time. But again, our view is that this is a huge opportunity for Myanmar and so every time we talk to the Tatmadaw, the government and members of the different ethnic armed groups, we always encourage them to redouble their efforts, try not to miss this opportunity for a big step forward on peace.
Over recent months, China has been active when it comes to the peace process, especially talking and being in the discussion. In regards to the ethnic groups, is there any discussion between the United States and China when it comes to dealing with such complicated issues in the peace process?
Sure, what I would say it a lot on members of the international community would like to see peace here and the peace process succeed. We talk regularly among ourselves here and I certainly do with my Chinese counterpart on a regular basis. I don’t want to speak for the Chinese Government, I can’t do that but to the extent that China is able to encourage all the players to move forward in the peace process we think that can be very helpful. So, I think we would like to see all governments involved do what they can to support the peace process.
North Korea is a very important issue at the moment. Are we going to see any conflict there?
North Korea is a concern. Its behaviour has been concerning for many years and it is arguably increasingly concerning because it continues to test missiles and other weapons that pose a threat to the entire region, including the United States. So, it is essential that all of us to work together to try and move the North Korean Government in a more positive direction. This is a very troubling situation and it requires, as I said, all of the governments in the region including the United States to work together to try and find a solution.
How do you see the role of the UN Security Council in such a situation?
I think the security council has been very active and quite united on North Korea. It has acted any number of times with consensus to support further sanctions and other steps to send a clear message to the North Korean Government that it needs to desist from these very destabilising actions. So, we will continue to work with security council as well as with our bilateral partners to try to address this problem.
We just had President Trump say he was willing to meet the leader of North Korea, are we going to see such dramatic activity in the near future?
I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to add to what the president himself has said. I will just leave it at that.
What is your current opinion in relation to freedom of expression?
I think the world has agreed there are certain universal values and universal rights including the right to freedom of expressions, freedom of speech, it is not just a US value or principle though it is one that is very important to us. We think it critical to the success of modern societies that people be able to enjoy all of their freedoms. Now, that doesn’t mean it is not useful for citizens of all countries to do what they can to educate themselves and to from a wide variety of sources to that they have good information.
I think the proliferation of media sources is in some ways, in many ways, it is a great thing. It also means that readers who watch the news or read a newspaper or reading online probably have to do a little more work to make sure we are getting the right information. But I don’t think that changes in any way the importance of freedom of expression because the trouble is once you start limiting freedom of expression where do you stop? And who gets the right to limit it? So, in our view, it is really important that freedom of expression be as broad as possible.
There are some problems with freedom of expression, for example, hate speech this is a problem that affects us in Myanmar what is you view on this?
It is an issue that many countries including the United States struggle with. I would not say everybody should follow the US approach, I would say our view is that hate speech is a serious problem. As much as possible it should be countered by others with a much more positive message and any legal measure place to limit hate speech should be as limited as possible, in other words, each society has to decide what the line is I think. It is important that hate speech not be used as a rationale to curb fundamental freedom of expression.
USAID has in the past provided support for media groups in Myanmar and there is a concern that this could be reduced. Is this likely?
You are right. We have over the past several years been focussed on providing assistance in different areas in Myanmar trying to help the reform efforts and the economy and so on. And one of these has been to support independent, capable, and strong media we certainly hope to want to continue those efforts. Every year, and with every new administration there is always budget issues there is never enough money to go all round so we will have to see when congress finishes with both budget proposals for 2017/18. I can’t predict what those numbers will be but I can say is that our hope and intention is to continue being as supportive as we can.
Is there anything you would like to add?
I think the main message I want to give is the new administration in the United States including Vice-President Pence’s visit to Indonesia strongly reaffirmed our commitment to not only Myanmar but also with engaging with ASEAN, and Southeast Asia. The President will travel to Vietnam and the Philippines later this year to attend the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Summit as well as APEC, so I think what we are seeing is a strong reaffirmation of our commitment to this entire region including Myanmar.