RANGOON — Burma’s Lower House of Parliament approved a controversial Printers and Publishers Registration bill put forward by the country’s Ministry of Information on Thursday, with few amendments to draft legislation that press advocates have decried as an affront to free speech.
According to the bill—and to journalists’ dismay—the Ministry of Information would maintain the authority to issue publication licenses as well as to revoke or terminate those licenses if the holders violate the rules proposed in the bill. In addition, publishers can be brought to court and fined US$300 to $10,000 for offenses that include “disturbing the rule of law” and “inciting unrest,” provisions that critics say are too vague and ripe for abuse.
Ye Tun, a parliamentarian from the Lower House, said lawmakers had scrapped some provisions of the ministry’s draft and made improvements to the bill.
“We’ve deleted the rule like ‘a publication can be declared illegal for violating the Constitution and other existing laws,’” he said.
“But, if a publication violates the law, people can complain about it to the information minister, who has the authority to declare the publication ‘illegal’ and terminate it,” Ye Tun added. “We have also added a provision that publishers can complain at a court to say they didn’t break the law and seek the court’s ruling.”
The draft voted on by the Lower House on Thursday will be sent to the Upper House. Approval from the latter would pass the bill into law.
Zaw Thet Htwe from Burma’s Press Council said he was disappointed with the vote because the newly approved bill neglected to incorporate amendments proposed by the council.
“They didn’t keep their promise to fix the points that violate our freedom,” he said. “We’re going to hold an emergency meeting.”
The Ministry of Information published the Printers and Publishers Registration bill on Feb. 27, and a few days later the draft law was sent to Parliament without any input from local media associations.
Since then, journalists have strongly objected to the proposed bill, which will replace even tougher rules established in 1962 by the government of the late dictator Ne Win. The existing law allows the government to revoke licenses at any time and carries a maximum seven-year sentence for failing to register publications, though the current government of reformist President Thein Sein has declined to prosecute any publications for violating those provisions.