RANGOON — After public outcry over a proposed law that critics warn could reverse fragile gains in Burma’s press freedoms, journalists say they are making inroads in negotiations with the government to safeguard their right to report.
Journalists from Burma’s Press Council say the Ministry of Information is responding to concerns about the draft Printers and Publishers Registration Law, which caused an uproar in March after the government submitted it to lawmakers without consulting local media or press advocacy groups.
“We’ve talked a couple times with officials from the ministry,” Thiha Saw, a member of the Press Council and deputy chief of the Myanmar Journalists Association, told The Irrawaddy earlier this week, adding that the government pledged to revise articles of the bill that gave the ministry broad powers to grant and revoke publication licenses.
He said the Press Council, a 29-member committee comprised of mostly journalists and 10 government representatives, was talking with the ministry to ensure the bill did not “overlap or conflict with” articles of a separate press law the council is drafting to boost media freedom.
“In fact, it can change, anything we want to change in the draft, so there is no overlap,” said the Press Council member, who is also the editor of Myanmar Dhana business magazine and the newsweekly Open News.
State-run newspapers first revealed the draft Printers and Publishers Registration Law to the public in late February. Days later the ministry submitted the bill to Parliament, although lawmakers have not yet formally considered whether to pass it.
If enacted, the unamended bill would require news agencies to register with a “registration officer” from the ministry’s department for copyrights and registration, and it would also allow the Ministry of Information to revoke or terminate their publication licenses for offenses including “disturbing the rule of law,” “inciting unrest” or “violating the Constitution.”
Critics say that by giving the ministry such broad powers, the proposed law would effectively reinstate media censorship.
“We say registration should not be controlled by the Ministry of Information. They will change that—they have promised to change that,” said Thiha Saw, adding that the assurances were made by the ministry’s director-general, Tint Swe, who once ran Burma’s recently disbanded censorship board.
“Registration should just be business registration, not anything the Ministry [of Information] would control,” he added, suggesting that publications could instead register with the Ministry of Commerce or local authorities. “We’re working on it. That’s what we want.”
Tint Swe could not be reached for comment on Thursday.
Ye Htut, the deputy minister of information and a government spokesman, also did not respond to requests for comment about the ministry’s negotiations with the Press Council. Earlier in the week, however, he said Parliament would discuss the bill in July after reconvening from its recess.
“The draft was not discussed during the earlier [parliamentary] session because it was submitted late,” he told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday in an e-mail.
Responding to criticism that the proposed law would restrict media freedom, he said: “The draft bill is not about journalists or the press. It’s about registering printing presses and publishers. It’s to prevent hate speech, pornography and [to protect] public safety.”
Thiha Saw said the Press Council would meet again with the ministry to discuss the bill on Sunday, two days after World Press Freedom Day on Friday.
He said the bill would likely be considered in Parliament at the same time as the Press Council’s own draft Press Law, which aims to define reporters’ rights, promote media ethics and boost overall press freedoms for journalists and journal publishers.
“We will submit the draft to Parliament and the Ministry of Information in May,” said Myint Kyaw, another member of the Press Council and secretary of the Myanmar Journalist Network.
Thiha Saw added that before Parliament considers the draft Press Law in July, Press Council members would make their case before lawmakers in the capital.
“Likely in the middle of May, a team from the Press Council will go to Naypyidaw and explain to members of Parliament what we have done so far,” he said.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday the government announced that it would allow the publication of 10 more private dailies, bumping the total number to 26.
Private dailies, which were banned under the former regime, were granted licenses to hit newsstands last month, in one of the latest moves by Burma’s nominally civilian government to ease media restrictions. President Thein Sein’s administration has also abolished pre-publication censorship, allowing news agencies to print articles without first submitting them to a censorship board.
Thiha Saw said news coverage of highly sensitive issues—such as recent clashes between Buddhists and Muslims—had improved since pre-publication censorship was dropped in August, with more frequent reporting on the anti-Muslim riots in central Burma last month than the clashes in western Burma that began last June.
“There was more censorship in June,” he said. “But now without so much restriction, we have more coverage.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an international press watchdog based in the United States, said it was also closely monitoring the riots in central Burma, which have cast a shadow over the country’s political and economic reforms, and was not aware of any government restrictions on local media there.
“We contacted reporters and asked what restrictions they faced in covering the story, and we haven’t heard anything of people being denied access or of post-publication censorship,” Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s representative on Southeast Asia, told The Irrawaddy this week.
Still, local journalists and activists say media reform is far from over.
“We have gone quite far, but we still need to go a long way before becoming a free press,” Thiha Saw said.
Crispin, who met with more than 30 journalists and editors during a recent visit to Rangoon, criticized the government’s decision to initially send its printers and publishers bill to Parliament without first consulting local journalists.
“The fact that the Ministry of Information was drafting this law, pretty much in the dark without the knowledge of local press groups, shows there is still resistance at the ministry to these liberalizing reforms,” he said.
“It’s a mixed picture, to be sure, but those who have hailed Burma as a media freedom on par with the Philippines and Thailand aren’t looking at the whole picture. We have an incomplete reform story in Burma.”