RANGOON — Attendees at a media conference in Rangoon have called for revisions to recently passed media laws, arguing that the government retains undue power over broadcasters and print publishers under the current legislative framework.
The conference, organized by the Myanmar Journalists Association and several freedom of expression advocacy groups, convened over Friday and Saturday and discussed further media reforms needed after three years of seismic changes to the sector.
Attendees said the Broadcasting Law, which was enacted in August and permits the establishment of independent radio and television broadcasters, left the government with a troubling amount of influence over the regulation of licensees.
A Broadcast Council to be formed in the coming months will be dominated by government appointees. The Upper and Lower houses of Union Parliament and the president nominate are given power under the law to nominate six members each to the council, while a further nine members will be elected by broadcasters. The council is empowered to issue and revoke broadcasting licenses, and the president is also granted the power to unilaterally dismiss members of the council.
“The structure of this council was formed without considering the suggestions of media organizations and civil society groups,” said Khin Maung Win, the deputy executive director of Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB). “We asked lawmakers before the law was approved to include civil society members, but our recommendations were ignored.”
Ye Htut, the Information Minister and chief spokesman for President Thein Sein, told the conference on Friday that the Broadcast Council would be formed within the next six months, leaving the matter unclear as to whether the current administration would appoint members before the new parliament was sworn in at the end of January.
The Broadcasting Law is the third major piece of media legislation passed since the Thein Sein government ended the decades-old practice of prepublication censorship in mid-2012. The Printing and Publishing Law and the News Media Law were passed in 2014 to mixed reviews, with the US-based rights organization Article 19 claiming that the laws did not sufficiently guarantee freedom of expression for media workers.
The News Media Law provides for the formation a semi-independent council to uphold professional standards of conduct in the sector and consider ethical complaints directed against publishers. The majority of positions on the News Media Council are appointed by the parliament, president and professional associations.
On Friday, the News Media Council was finally sworn in, replacing the Interim Press Council formed by Thein Sein in 2012. Vice-chairman Pe Myint, one of four people who successfully contested a council seat in October, told that day’s conference session that all enacted media laws needed to be reviewed and amended.
Aspiring broadcasters are also concerned about the legacy presence of the state-owned Myanmar Radio and Television (MRTV) in the sector. Though media houses will no longer have to partner with the broadcaster to be granted a license, plans to convert government-run media enterprises into state-funded “public service” outlets have been criticized for lacking detail and a timetable.
“I think the state’s broadcasting channels are unnecessary,” said Khin Maung Win. “We just want to see a transformation into a private sector industry. Why do we need to keep these same organizations?”
Both DVB and fellow exile media outfit Mizzima are planning to court official broadcast licenses under the new regime. Mizzima founder Soe Myint told The Irrawaddy that while the new law had some merits, he was concerned that the lack of transparency around the founding of the Broadcast Council would be a portent of things to come when it began hearing license applications.
Two days before the conference began, several currently operating broadcasters formed the Myanmar Broadcasting Association to represent the sector. Exile media organizations were not invited to join, said Khin Maung Win.
In its legal analysis of the Broadcast Law, Article 9 called for an end to government broadcasting services in favor of independent state-funded outlets, guarantees of the Broadcast Council’s independence and powers, an independent and transparent licensing process, and greater access into the sector for foreign investors.
Elsewhere, the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported on Sunday that representatives of Mizzima, Burma News International and the National League for Democracy’s Information Committee met with Tint Swe, the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Information, to discuss means for the ministry to assist with the expansion of ethnic language news media platforms.