Mixed Bag in Information Ministry’s New Media Regulations

By San Yamin Aung 19 June 2015

RANGOON — More than a year after the passage of Burma’s Media Law, the Ministry of Information has finalized new media regulations for news organizations that will on paper give journalists greater access to information, but which may leave authorities with significant leverage over the reporting of contentious issues.

State-run media announced on Friday that the ministry had adopted the bylaws, which cover rights to information, the process for electing the Myanmar Press Council, remediation processes through the council for disputes, and the coverage of protests and armed conflict.

Myint Kyaw, secretary of the Myanmar Journalist Network and a member of the interim Myanmar Press Council, said new procedures for access to information from government departments would come into effect in the coming weeks.

“The regulations say that from now on, government departments, ministries and public organizations need to reply within 24 working hours for inquiries on present events, and for past occurrences, need to reply within 15 working days,” he said.

The new bylaws set out provisions for journalists to file complaints if public bodies refuse to give information without a compelling reason.

Clarifying the law’s position on reporting on conflicts and protests, bylaw 32(a) states that reporters can seek advance permission from authorities, receiving protection in return provided that journalists obey existing laws. At the moment it is unclear whether seeking permission to cover such news reports is as a result a formal prerequisite set out by the regulations.

The regulations also formalize procedures for civil action against news organizations by government authorities or private interests, giving stakeholders the right to file complaints against journalists and media proprietors for breaching the Media Law.

“We need to wait and see in practice whether the ministries apply [to pursue civil action], and how the complaints will be accepted and acted upon. That is only my concern about the law,” Myint Kyaw said.

“Since now the bylaws have been announced, we can stand the law. But it is still not the case that media freedoms have been assured. There are many other laws which are still being used to prosecute and imprison journalists.”

Burma’s Media Law, drafted by the interim Myanmar Press Council, was enacted in March 2014, officially bringing to an end the draconian 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act of the Ne Win era.

While the new law granted more freedom to journalists and proprietors, numerous critics have warned that the new framework falls far short of guaranteeing media freedom. An Amnesty International report on Wednesday noted that many journalists had been prosecuted under the Penal Code or unlawfully threatened by authorities in the time since the law was passed.

UK-based freedom of expression advocacy group Article 19 said last July that it remained seriously concerned by shortcomings in the law.

“The safeguards for media freedom are heavily qualified and insufficient to meet international standards,” it reported at the time.

Eleven reporters and publishers were imprisoned in 2014, in addition to the death of freelance journalist Par Gyi while in military custody.