Burma’s media will not have to pass through censorship once the new Myanmar Press Council is formed in June, according to a senior director at the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department (PSRD).
Speaking from his Rangoon office on Tuesday, PSRD Deputy Director-General Tint Swe said, “All publications, including politics and religion, will not need to pass through the censorship board as from June.”
The new press council will be formed with the approval of President Thein Sein, the deputy-director said.
However, veteran Burmese journalists who have read a draft of proposed press council regulations said they doubt that Burma will enjoy true freedom of press. They pointed out that many of the rules and regulations that are to be proposed are in fact adopted from the 1962 Printer and Publisher Registration Act and existing censorship policies.
Speaking to The Irrawaddy, Shawn Crispin, the Southeast Asia representative to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said, “The new Myanmar Press Council looks disturbingly similar to the outgoing pre-publication censorship board.
“The proposed rules that journalists must comply with—adopted from the 1962 Printer and Publisher Act and former 12-point censorship policy—will do little to improve the environment of press freedom in Burma,” he added.
Maung Wuntha, a prominent journalist and patron of the Myanmar Journalists Association Organizing Committee, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that the Myanmar Press Council must be a respected organization which is free from any party or organization’s control.
“If the Council uses the power of government or its institutions to control or take action against journalists, they will not receive the trust of the public,” he said.
He said that the censorship and banning of journalists’ work was still included, and that if the new council maintained the same policies as before, it would lead to more criticism.
Despite the slight improvements to the media landscape, Burma was still ranked as the seventh of the worst 10 countries in the world for media censorship on a recent list by CPJ.
“There have been widespread hopes that Burma’s press would gain new legal protection under Thein Sein’s quasi-democratic regime,” Crispin said, adding: “But if these proposed new rules for the print media hold, then Burma will inevitably remain one of the most censored countries for media in the world.”
Several Burma-based reporters said they hope that the new Press Council will be free from interference from any group or institution, but that no clear picture exists yet of whether current officials will occupy key roles in the new council or to what extent Burma’s journalists will be able to work independently.
Maung Wuntha said that the primary function of the Press Council must be “complaints resolution” to resolve disputes between a news medium and its readership or audience, or between journalists.
The initiative in forming the Myanmar Press Council was introduced in the last couple of days to the various journalist groups which were each told to nominate six representatives this month, said Tin Zar Zaw, a committee member with the Myanmar Journalist Network.
Burma’s Information Minister Kyaw Hsan held meetings on Sunday and Monday with the organizing committee members of the Myanmar Journalists Association, the Myanmar Journalists Network, the Myanmar Journalists Union, the Myanmar Writers Association and the Myanmar Publishers Association, as well as with members of the Myanmar Printers Association.
Kyaw Hsan told participants at the Myanmar Television Broadcasting building in Rangoon on Monday that the council will be formed in June under presidential approval.
He added that a media law will be passed to Parliament in July as it is currently being processed at the attorney-general’s office.
However, many observers have expressed skepticism. Several said that the new press council will simply be a replica of the previous censorship board, and point to the fact that many of the proposed rules mirror those of the existing PSRD.
It is unclear whether officials from the current board will be members in the new council.
Committee members from the Myanmar Journalists Network and the Myanmar Journalists Association said they will each meet soon to discuss the newly announced proposal.
Somewhat ironically, President Thein Sein’s speech on Friday was censored in the state-run newspapers.
“It seems Minister Kyaw Hsan has more power than President Thein Sein,” said a Rangoon-based publisher who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Aung Thet Wine contributed to this story from Rangoon.