Burma’s Parliament Delays Controversial Publishing Bill

By Nyein Nyein 21 January 2014

Burmese lawmakers on Tuesday delayed passing the controversial Printers and Publishers Registration Bill, saying that more time should be spent reviewing the legislation that will regulate the print media in a country that has only recently dropped a strict censorship regime.

First published by state media in February 2013, the bill gives the Ministry of Information the power to issue and revoke publishing licenses, drawing criticism from journalists.

The bill was expected to be passed at a Union Parliament session Tuesday, but is now expected to go through later this month, although a date has not been set.

The committee responsible for reviewing the bill agreed on the suggestion of Aye Myint, a lawmaker with the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, that the legislators should meet again with relevant government officials, according to Ba Shein, a Lower House MP and a member of the Lower House Bill Committee.

“It [the bill] is an important one to consider because it is controversial matter as well, and it needs to be reviewed in accordance with international standards. It is an appropriate suggestion and we agreed to it,” said Thein Nyunt, another Lower House lawmaker from the New National Democracy Party.

Before the final vote, the Bill Committee’ members, experts from the Information Ministry, and officials from the Attorney General’s Office will meet for further discussion on the draft.

The Printers and Publishers Registration Bill was originally submitted to Parliament in March 2013, and has had readings in both houses. It was passed by the Lower House in July, but then amended by the Upper House.

Journalists have not been consulted on the law, and powers giving the government the ability to stop outlets from publishing remain in the current draft. However, lengthy punishments for publishers and journalists breaking the law have been reduced.

Asked whether the delay of approval for the bill had any impact on journalists working in Burma’s media, Myint Kyaw, the secretary of Myanmar Journalist Network, said while he has misgivings about the new law, the delay only means the more draconian 1962 version of the law remains in place.

“We think there should be only one law for the media—the Press Law, which will ensure the freedom of expression for the journalists,” he said, referring to a law that has been drafted by Burma’s interim press council and is also before Parliament.

Despite the complaints, the ministry-drafted bill will come into effect this year.

“We do not want the [Ministry to have] control over licenses to publication, it should be that the press only informs them for registration. It shouldn’t give power to the ministry to revoke licenses anytime they want,” he said.

There is also some disagreement about the law between Parliament’s two houses. In particular, the Lower House wanted definitions of terms such as “media” and website” to be overtly stated in the law. This point has not yet been settled.

Lawmakers have also not yet agreed the details of how punishments will be decided for breaches of the law.

“We have a disagreement on the ‘action taken’ [punishments] section,” added Ba Shein. “When one breaks the Law, it is still in discussion whether one should have action taken by the Information Ministry’s management committee or by the courts,” he said.

The Upper House is in this case insistent that any dispute should go to the courts for a decision.

Myint Kyaw agrees that the law should be applied in the courts as the law is applied to all citizens.

“I reckon the ministry should not act as the court’s judgment as this could bring concerns about bribery,” said Myint Kyaw. “It should be the court that decides for any dispute, but the judiciary system must be just.”