RANGOON — A mere five days after Burma’s government released its controversial draft press law, the bill was sent to Parliament on Monday. The government has declined to consult Burmese media on the bill, drawing outrage from media members. They have warned that the authorities are reinstating censorship.
State-run newspaper The New Light of Myanmar published the Printing and Publishing Bill on Feb. 27. The announcement surprised members of Burma’s media, who were under the impression that they would be consulted on the draft press law. This new law will replace the repressive 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act.
On Monday, however, the draft law was sent to Parliament without any input from local media associations.
Kyi Myint, a Lower House member for the National Democratic Force, confirmed the Ministry of Information had sent the bill. “The Lower House Bill Committee will review it in detail,” he said.
“We know that all the members of the media do not agree with this bill and object to it,” the opposition MP said. “This will be included in the considerations of the respective [parliamentary] committees.”
Phyo Min Thein, a Lower House member for the National League for Democracy, encouraged media representatives to write to MPs and the parliamentary committees to explain the shortcomings of the draft press law.
Upon its release last week, the bill drew strong criticism from Burmese media associations and international press freedom advocates. They said it threatens to reverse press freedom gains made under President Thein Sein, who has lifted censorship and pledged to introduce full press freedom.
Critics said the new bill gives the government broad powers to cancel publishing licenses, control media content and severely punish journalists.
In a reaction on Monday, Ye Tint, the Ministry of Information’s department of information and public relations director general, dismissed the criticism of the draft law.
“In the bill there are no restrictions on press freedom,” he claimed. “Other countries also have laws like this to control risks to state security or to the unity of the state, or [the publishing of] pornographic material.”
“There are no conditions [in the bill] that would affect media and press freedom. If there is no news relating to state security, then there is no problem,” Ye Tint said.
He then said that “positive criticism” of the Constitution would be allowed, but added that, “You cannot write against any matter stated in the Constitution.” The official did not elaborate on what defines positive and negative critiques of the controversial Constitution, which was drafted by the previous military junta.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) warned on Friday that the new draft legislation “threatens to reverse fragile press freedom gains recently achieved under President Thein Sein’s democratic reform program.”
The New York-based group said the bill “bans reporting on several vague topics, including any news or commentary critical of the military-drafted 2008 Constitution, and allows for six-month prison sentences for failing to register news publications with the government.”
“If passed in its current form, the draft law will essentially replace Burma’s old censorship regime with a similarly repressive new one,” CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative Shawn Crispin said in a statement.
“Banning news topics and legalizing the jailing of journalists is utterly inconsistent with the press freedom guarantees that authorities vowed the new law would promote. We urge lawmakers to amend this draft in a way that protects, and not restricts, press freedom,” he said.
According to the released draft law, a Ministry of Information appointed “registration official” will have authority to issue or withdraw publishing licenses, and to monitor publications for violating the bill’s media rules.
A publication can be declared “illegal” for a number of violations, including vague charges of “disturbing the rule of law,” “inciting unrest” or “violating the Constitution and other existing laws,” the bill states.
It also said the Information Ministry “can provide a publishing license for a set period of time,” without further explanation.
The bill sets out strong punishments for members of the media, who could face six months imprisonment and a fine of up to $12,000 for publishing without a license. Media distribution by an “illegal” publication carries a three month sentence and a fine of up to $6,000.
Local media members were taken aback by the announcement last week, as the government and media groups agreed to form the Myanmar Press Council in August 2012, a 30-member council comprising mostly journalists and 10 members appointed by the government.
The group had since begun drafting its own media law, believing that it would serve as a basis for the new press law.
“The Myanmar Press Council is also drafting the press law, in which we asked for media freedom. The government draft legislation is the opposite of that,” Myo Min Htike, publisher of Venus News Weekly said last week. “If it were approved it would just be like renaming the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act the 2013 Press Law.”
On Friday and Saturday, the Myanmar Journalists Association (MJA), the Myanmar Journalists Network and the Myanmar Journalists Union all issued statements strongly condemning the government’s draft press law.
Aung Hla Tun, Reuters’ Burma correspondent and vice-chairman of the MJA, said last week that the new draft, together with other existing repressive laws affecting the media would create a stifling environment for Burma’s journalists.
“We expected the new media law to give more freedom and fewer restrictions,” he said. “If the draft legislation combines with the Electronic Act, we cannot practice freedom of expression anymore.”
Additional reporting by Nyein Nyein.