RANGOON — International press freedom watchdogs have joined Burmese journalists in condemning a new publishing bill that was passed last week by the country’s Lower House of Parliament and will be considered next by the Upper House.
“We fully support those journalists who are calling for this repressive bill to be abandoned,” Reporters Without Borders said in a statement on Tuesday. “The Upper House must reject this proposed law in its present form as it does not meet international standards on protection of the media.”
The Printing and Publishing Enterprise Bill gives the Ministry of Information broad powers to issue and revoke publication licenses, and journalists from Burma’s interim Press Council have threatened to resign if it is passed by the Upper House in its current form.
Media watchdogs say the bill threatens to reverse Burma’s fragile gains in press freedoms under President Thein Sein’s government, which took office in 2011 and abolished pre-publication censorship of print media in 2012.
“We seem to have reached a turning point in the reform process initiated by the government in 2011, one that will clarify its real intentions,” France-based Reporters Without Borders said. “The government cannot continue indefinitely to point to the measures it took in 2012 as evidence of its goodwill while at the same time trying to reassert control over the media.”
Dr. Agnes Callamard, executive director of Article 19, a London-based human rights organization that works on freedom of expression, also criticized the bill.
“Our analysis of the Printing and Publishing Enterprise Law bill shows that it falls far, far below international standards and if it were adopted would, in effect, retain a system of full government control over the media,” she said in a statement on Tuesday. “The Press Council is right to take a stand on such a vital issue to the future of Myanmar.”
The publishing bill has been controversial since it was first unveiled by the Ministry of Information in late February, as the initial draft was created without prior consultation from the Press Council, a body of mostly journalists and some government-appointed representatives that formed last year and is drafting a separate press law to boost media freedom.
Press Council members met with ministry officials in May to suggest changes to the publishing bill, but most of those suggestions were not incorporated into the version passed by the Lower House last Thursday.
Burma’s Information Minister Aung Kyi said amendments to the bill were submitted to Parliament’s Lower House on Sunday and would be discussed further by lawmakers.
“The bill committee submitted their amendments to the bill to Pyithu Hluttaw [the Lower House] on 7 July,” he said in a speech published by the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper on Tuesday. “After the Pyithu Hluttaw representatives have been informed, the committee has appointed a date for further discussion.
“I’m very glad to meet and talk about the bill,” the minister added, saying he would not hesitate to accept amendments as long as they met international norms.
The Press Council does not approve of the bill currently because it does not want the Ministry of Information to control publishing licenses, and has instead recommended that publications be allowed to register like other businesses through the Ministry of Commerce or local authorities.
“We will try to send a message to the Upper House and the President’s Office so maybe we can reach a compromise or a deal, maybe make some changes,” Thiha Saw, a Rangoon-based editor and a member of the council, told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday. “If all this fails, the entire Press Council will resign in protest.”
He said council members met on Tuesday to discuss the bill and would meet again on Thursday.
“We also intend to meet in person with the speaker of the Lower House, the speaker of the Upper House and maybe a presidential advisor,” he said.
The council has meanwhile submitted its own press bill to Parliament for consideration. That bill aims to define reporters’ rights, promote media ethics and boost overall press freedoms for journalists and journal publishers.
“We already sent a copy to the Lower House on June 26,” Thiha Saw said. “But we will also send the Upper House, the President’s Office, all political parties and some civil society groups our version of the law, and then we will send some documents about our discussions with the Ministry of Information.”