RANGOON — Burmese journalists are putting a dent in the feel-good narrative of their country’s media reforms, which have been widely praised for permitting unprecedented press freedoms after decades of repressive censorship under the former military regime.
At storefronts and on public buildings in Burma’s biggest city over the weekend, a group of journalists plastered walls with stickers calling on the government to allow for more media freedom, “for the people to know the truth.” The journalists, including some wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the statement, “Stop Killing Press,” delivered the stickers to passersby and asked for signatures in support of their movement.
Their mission? To raise public awareness about their growing unease with the direction that media reforms in the country appear to be taking. At issue is a publishing bill, drafted by the government, which critics say gives the Ministry of Information (MOI) overly broad powers to issue and revoke publication licenses. The bill was passed by Parliament’s Lower House last month and is set for consideration by the Upper House before it can be passed into law.
There is also another point of contention: Burma’s interim Press Council has submitted its own, separate Press Bill to Parliament—with the goal of defining reporters’ rights, promoting media ethics and boosting overall press freedom—but the group has run into opposition from the Ministry of Information over more than a dozen recommendations included in the draft legislation.
“We have collected more than 1,000 signatures in Rangoon over the past two days,” Myint Kyaw of the Myanmar Journalist Network (MJN) told The Irrawaddy on Sunday, adding that journalists were also collecting signatures in other cities including Mandalay, Magwe, Myitkyina and Moulmein.
“Our aim is to get the bill drafted by the Press Council passed into law—as it is—and to urge the Upper House to review the MOI’s Printing and Publishing Enterprise Bill that the Lower House already approved,” added the journalist, who is also a member of the Press Council.
The signature campaign is being organized by three journalist associations and local media groups, and Myint Kyaw said the signatures would be submitted to both houses of Parliament after the campaign ends next weekend.
The relationship between Burma’s journalists and the Ministry of Information has soured in recent weeks, after the ministry took issue with 17 points from the Press Council’s bill.
Ye Htut, the deputy minister of information and President Thein Sein’s spokesman, has said that the 17 points failed to meet international standards. Without amendments, he said, the ministry would not be able to submit the bill to the Lower House for consideration.
“If the bill is submitted to the Parliament without amendments, we will object to it until the end because it could harm the public interest and security,” he told the 7 Day daily newspaper.
Press Council member Zaw Thet Htwe told The Irrawaddy that the 17 points in contention would soon be announced to the public.
On Sunday, more than a dozen journalists appeared at a busy thoroughfare in Hledan, near Rangoon University, to hand out the stickers to passersby and ask for their signatures. Other reporters did the same elsewhere in the city.
“We are here to collect people’s signatures to support the Press Council bill that has been blocked by the MOI,” the journalists told pedestrians.
Thura Myo, a journalist volunteering for the campaign, said the public seemed receptive to the campaign.
“Most of the people we ask are aware of what’s happening between us and the MOI, so they willingly sign,” he said. “Sometimes we have to explain a little bit about what we’re doing and why, for their understanding.”
Myint Kyaw said the general support of the public indicated that the issue of press freedom was not only a concern for journalists, but for the average Burmese citizen.
“So Parliament should consider the fact that what we are demanding is backed by the people’s wishes,” he said.