RANGOON — After several weeks of negotiation between Burma’s government and local journalists, lawmakers this month will receive the final, revised draft of a controversial law to replace one of the former regime’s most draconian publishing acts, a member of the country’s Press Council says.
The draft Printers and Publishers Registration Law is intended to replace a decades-old act that required all publications to register with and submit copies to the former military regime’s censorship board, which was disbanded this year. An earlier draft of the publishing bill, written by the Ministry of Information, was revealed in February but was widely criticized among journalists for giving the ministry broad powers to grant and revoke publication licenses, as the censorship board once did.
“For us, it was an attempt to revive the old draconian law,” Thiha Saw, deputy chief of the Myanmar Journalists Association and a member of Burma’s interim Press Council, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday, the same day a major international press watchdog condemned the February draft in a report on Burma’s media freedom. The Press Council is a 28-member body of mostly journalists and 10 government-appointed representatives, which formed last year to come up with a code of journalism ethics and draft a separate press law to boost media freedom.
Thiha Saw, the council’s coordinator for information, communicates closely with the Ministry of Information. After meeting with the ministry five times last month to discuss journalists’ concerns with the publishing bill, he said the ministry agreed to make revisions, including removing its authority over licensing. Under the revised bill, he said, publications would no longer be required to register with the ministry’s department for copyrights and registration, but would instead register like other businesses through the Ministry of Commerce or local authorities. “The MoI agreed to that,” he said.
The revision would be a win for local reporters, as the old draft gave the ministry broad powers to revoke or terminate publication licenses for offenses including “disturbing the rule of law,” “inciting unrest” or “violating the Constitution.” These broad powers had been highly criticized by press advocates in Burma and abroad, including the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which on Thursday published a report urging the government to “scrap” the February bill, which “aims to impose broad and vaguely worded censorship guidelines, an arbitrary newspaper licensing regime, and possible prison sentences for violations.”
In the updated bill, Thiha Saw said the ministry’s Copyrights and Registration Department would be renamed as the Copyrights and Archives Department, with a new function: Rather than registering publications and controlling licensing, the department would create an archive of local newspapers and magazines by collecting copies after publication.
“They [the ministry] will send their version [of the bill] to Parliament by the end of this month,” Thiha Saw said, adding that the Press Council would also send lawmakers the final draft of its own Press Law, which aims to define reporters’ rights, promote media ethics and boost overall press freedoms for journalists and journal publishers.
He said Parliament could decide to merge the two bills into one law, to ensure that there was no overlap. “The two may be combined and made into one single law, or kept separate,” he said, adding that if the bills remained separate, the publishing bill would concern technical matters such as rules for printing machines, while the Press Council’s bill would focus more on media professionalism and ethics.
Despite assurances from the ministry, however, he said the Press Council had not yet seen a copy of the final publishing bill. To ensure Parliament understands the agreed revisions, he said the Press Council met in Rangoon last Sunday with lawmakers who were visiting from Naypyidaw.
A Facelift for State Mouthpieces?
The ministry is also set to submit another controversial bill to Parliament by the end of the month. The bill, known as the Public Service Media Law, aims to revamp government mouthpieces such as the New Light of Myanmar newspaper, The Mirror newspaper and Myanmar Radio and Television (MRTV) by turning them into independent public service media.
Public service media are common in other countries, in the form of public radio and television broadcasting typically funded by the public as opposed to being privately or state-owned.
While some Burmese journalists support the general idea of creating public service media, the proposed bill came under fire last weekend by the Press Council, which said the legislation would create an uneven playing field that put privately owned media at a disadvantage.
According to the bill, which has support from international organizations including Unesco, public service media would receive 70 percent of its funding from Parliament and 30 percent from commercial sources such as advertising, but would not pay taxes like other publications.
At a press conference on Saturday, Ye Htut, the deputy minister of information and President Thein Sein’s spokesman, said the bill aimed to promote editorial independence from the government. However, he said a 15-member administrative team would be formed to oversee the transformation, with five members appointed by the president and the rest by Parliament, raising doubts among journalists about editorial independence.
“We don’t want an attempt to replace something old by creating the same thing with a new name,” Thiha Saw told The Irrawaddy.
Aung Myat Kyaw, a lawmaker from the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, echoed similar concerns.
“Formerly, the Ministry of Information was a propaganda tool for the government, and it wasn’t transparent or fair at all,” he said at the press conference on Saturday. “If the public service media about to emerge are the same, we don’t like it at all. It’s unacceptable.”
However, if public service media were allowed enough editorial independence, he said they could help raise awareness of ethnic minority issues, in a country where ethnic minorities have long been discriminated against by the ethnic Burman-majority government.
“It is a good idea that there are programs for ethnic minorities,” he said. “If there were programs about ethnic minority cultures, that would foster mutual understanding.”
Thursday’s CPJ report, which was based on interviews with 30 editors and reporters in Burma, also highlighted a lack of media outlets in ethnic minority regions.
“We do not have any regional papers yet, not in [the] Burmese language, not in their own ethnic languages,” Ma Thida, a human rights activist and editor of The Myanmar Independent, a Rangoon-based newspaper that specializes in ethnic issues, was quoted as saying in the report.
“Unless we have that type of paper, we cannot say we have freedom. Otherwise we cannot hear the voices from far, remote areas: What are they suffering? What are their needs? What is happening? We haven’t got a clue.”
‘Hanging Above Our Heads’
While the publishing bill and public service media bill have received the most media coverage, more laws governing Burma’s press may also be on the way.
The Ministry of Information also plans to draft laws governing broadcasting, libraries and film production, according to Thiha Saw, who said the ministry’s deputy-general told him about the plans in February.
“Most of us journalists, we’re concerned about more laws coming from the MoI,” he said, adding that he had not seen drafts of the three bills but expected the broadcast bill to be completed soon. “They have already planned for it.
“With this democratic reform, there should be fewer laws, less control,” he added. “More laws mean more restraint.”
CPJ also called on Burma’s government to amend or abolish several restrictive laws left over from the former regime, including the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, the 2000 Internet Act and the 2004 Electronic Transactions Act.
“Although currently not enforced, many of the harsh and arbitrary laws used to suppress and imprison journalists under military rule remain on the books,” wrote Shawn Crispin, the report’s author, who said many journalists censored themselves as a result. He said the Emergency Provisions Act, Internet Act and Electronic Transactions Act all allowed for prison sentences for spreading information deemed a threat to national security, domestic peace or racial harmony.
“These laws are still there and so can be used at any time. They are hanging above our heads,” Win Tin, a co-founder of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party who was imprisoned for 20 years for his writing, told the CPJ. “These laws are more or less a real danger for press freedom in the future. We want to abolish all these laws.”
With reporting by Myat Su Mon.