By Tim Large
YANGON, March 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Myanmar's commitment to freedom of expression after half a century of military rule is irreversible, the government said on Friday, although critics cited lawsuits, beatings and arrests of journalists as signs of it backtracking on reforms.
Information Minister Ye Htut said an unfettered press was essential to the success of parliamentary elections set for later this year, despite challenges including tensions between old and new media laws and a rise in defamation cases.
"We have the reform strategy and we have the political will to implement it," Ye Htut told a gathering of the International Press Institute, an organisation of editors, media executives and journalists, meeting for the first time in Myanmar.
"We recognise our problems but we are working every day, doing our best to overcome these challenges. I would like to assure you today the Myanmar reform process is irreversible," he said. "There is no turning back on our reform process. The only way is moving forward."
The media in Myanmar has enjoyed sweeping freedoms since President Thein Sein's semi-civilian government took power in 2011 but the Committee to Protect Journalists said recently that since then, 10 journalists had been jailed and 19 faced trial.
Earlier this month, riot police used wooden batons to forcibly disperse students protesting against a new education law, arresting over 125 of them in Letpadan, a town near Yangon.
As Ye Htut was speaking, journalist Soe Yarzar Tun stood silently in the auditorium wearing a mask and holding a placard reading: "Stop beating, arresting, imprisoning journalists".
"The president and U Ye Htut have continuously talked about media reform since 2011 but things have worsened for journalists after 2013," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation afterwards.
"We are worried that if we let that go (the Letpadan protests) there will be more problems in the future."
As a gaggle of international journalists turned their cameras on Soe Yarzar Tun, Ye Htut looked unfazed.
"There's another sign of how much Myanmar is changing," he said, stressing that such protests would have been unthinkable half a decade ago, when every song, book, cartoon, news story and piece of art required approval by censors working for a board known as the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division.
Myanmar today has 32 daily newspapers, 439 weekly journals and 347 monthly magazines - although only 14 newspapers and some 200 journals and magazines are able to publish regularly due to financial difficulties, Ye Htut said.
In addition, more than 12 international organisations - including the Thomson Reuters Foundation - are working on media development projects in Myanmar.
But he said many challenges remained ahead of elections, including tackling hate speech and encouraging a diversity of voices in a country divided by language and ethnicity.
"We need to prevent state media or one or two big media groups using their political and economic power to dominate and manipulate the public debate," he said.
Asked if the information ministry would organise television debates between leading candidates in the run-up to elections, Ye Htut said it was not practical given the sheer number of parties competing.
He also said the government would not release 12 journalists who are in prison, saying they should take their cases to the supreme court and parliament.
The Union Election Commission has set the end of April as the deadline for political party registration for this year's polls, likely to be held in the first week of November. (Reporting by Tim Large; Editing by Katie Nguyen)
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