RANGOON — Members of Burma’s interim Press Council say they will resign if the newly minted Printing and Publishing Enterprise Bill is passed into law in its current guise.
The bill, which gives the Ministry of Information broad powers to issue and revoke publishing licenses, was passed last week by Burma’s lower house of Parliament and will next go to the upper house for consideration.
In the meantime, the council—which has requested that publishing licenses be regulated under commercial rather than media laws—says it will petition the upper house and the President’s Office to have the bill revised.
“If this is passed in its current form, we will resign,” says Thiha Saw, a Rangoon-based newspaper editor and member of the interim Press Council, a body formed with government backing last September that comprises representatives of three Burmese journalist associations as well as lawmakers and legal experts.
Fellow council member and journalist Myint Kyaw says the body’s recommendations on changing the initial draft, which was published earlier this year, “were mostly ignored” by lawmakers prior to the lower house’s passing of the bill last Thursday.
“The interim Press Council felt that agreements had been broken,” he said, citing meetings between the council and officials about deleting provisions that the journalists opposed from the first version of the bill.
Ye Htut, the deputy minister of information and spokesman for President Thein Sein, responded to criticism of the bill on his Facebook page, writing that some parts of the initial bill had been changed and that “this law has nothing to do with controlling press freedom.”
However the bill contains vague language banning criticism of Burma’s 2008 Constitution, despite calls from lawmakers from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) to look into constitutional reform.
And although some proposed punishments, such as jailing reporters for infractions, have been removed from the bill, the threat of fines—and of licenses being withheld or revoked by the ministry—remain in place. The licensing stipulations are similar to Malaysia’s much-criticized print media licensing system, which though recently diluted, has long prompted self-censorship in the country’s print press.
The bill comes three months after Burma’s first private daily newspapers in five decades hit the streets, and almost a year after the end of the old pre-publication censorship system, which typically saw officials run lines of red ink through copy submitted by newspapers, telling them what they could and could not publish.
While those restrictions are now artifacts and Burma’s media is much freer than in the recent past, repressive statutes such as the Electronic Transactions Act and the Internet Act—under which reporters were given multi-decade jail terms under the old military junta—remain in place.
The government recently banned an edition of Time magazine with a cover story featuring controversial monk Wirathu and headlined “The Face of Buddhist Terror.”
The edition prompted protests in Rangoon, signifying support in some quarters for the government’s ban and a marked turnaround from August last year, when journalists in the city demonstrated against the suspension of two newspapers by the old censorship board, then on its last legs.
Defending the temporary reversion to censorship in Burma, Thein Sein said that “according to a traditional Burmese saying, people shouldn’t say something if it is not good for others, even if it is right.”
The Printing and Publishing Enterprise Bill is not the only proposed reform of Burma’s media rules that has been met with disapproval by media watchdogs.
The Public Service Media Bill, which would regulate Burma’s state-linked media, contains some positive attributes, such as ending state ownership, according to London-based NGO Article 19, but proposes continued state funding for newspapers such as The New Light of Myanmar and would not give sufficient independence to public broadcasters.
Among Burma’s private media, it seems that tensions with the government are growing. While the Press Council says it will lobby the upper house and the President’s Office over the new publishing bill, it separately submitted a draft Press Bill to the Ministry of Information and Parliament on June 26.
Seeking to distinguish between the two drafts, presidential spokesman Ye Htut wrote that the Press Council’s draft law is a professional law, while the Printing and Publishing Enterprise Bill is an institutional and enterprise-related law, and therefore should be undertaken by the relevant ministry.
However there are concerns that the Printing and Publishing Enterprise Bill overlaps with the council’s own draft code and will shackle Burma’s media.
“If this [the Printing and Publishing Enterprise Bill] is meant as just an industry law, then it contains far too much content regulation,” says Gayathry Venkiteswaran, executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA).
According to the Press Council, the Ministry of Information replied to the council’s draft last Wednesday, seeking 17 changes, demands that the council looks set to ignore.
“We [the Press Council] agreed not to make any more changes,” said Thiha Saw.