Shwe Mann, Suu Kyi Seek to Reassure Journalists Over Media Laws

By Tha Lun Zaung Htet & Simon Roughneen 14 August 2013

The bill, which the Press Council says would give Burma’s Ministry of Information wide scope to issue and revoke publishing licenses and which journalists see as overly restrictive, is currently with Burma’s Upper House after the Lower House passed the measure in July.

Press Council members have said they will resign if the measure is passed into law as it is, but it seems that nuclear option might not now be necessary. “Thura Shwe Mann told us that there should be a chance to amend the bill before it leaves the Upper House, and that it even could be amended after that, in the joint houses, and even once it goes to the president,” said Thiha Saw, a Press Council member who attended Tuesday’s meetings in Naypyidaw.

While in Burma’s administrative capital, the Press Council delegation met with National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Suu Kyi, who like Shwe Mann, is a contender for Burma’s presidency after national elections scheduled for 2015.

“We explained to her [Suu Kyi] everything that happened between the Press Council and the Ministry of Information regarding the Printing and Publishing Enterprise Bill and also how the bill got approved. She said that the Lower House only approved that bill because it assumed that negotiations have been done for the bill. She stressed that the best way is negotiations. Then she also told us that even the Constitution can be amended and reminded us not to despair about this issue,” said Zaw Thet Htwe, a Press Council member, discussing the meeting with The Irrawaddy.

Meanwhile the Press Council will meet parliamentarians from the New National Democratic Party on Friday, ahead of a hoped-for discussion next Monday of their draft News Media Bill in the Lower House.

The Press Council’s bill is intended as a professional code for journalists, separate from the Ministry of Information’s Printing and Publishing Enterprise Bill. However, there are concerns about possible overlap between the two draft codes, with the publishing bill criticized by the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), a regional press freedom group, for veering into content regulation.

While the Press Council has rejected the Information Ministry’s publishing draft, the ministry in turn has taken issue with the Press Council’s News Media Bill. “We changed 51 clauses in our draft, and then they asked again to change 17 more, which we refused,” said Thiha Saw.

A Monday meeting in Rangoon between Minister of Information Aung Kyi and the Press Council did not feature any discussion of the two hotly debated bills—though Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut conceded that the publishing bill could be amended.

“In the past there have been a lot of differences between the Interim Press Council and the Ministry of Information,” conceded Ye Htut. “But we are proposing to settle our differences with dialogue,” he told The Irrawaddy.

It appears that the original Printing and Publishing Enterprise Bill was rushed through the Lower House by lawmakers harried by a frenzied agenda, hearkening back to concerns that some of Burma’s much-needed legislative reforms are being carried out in haste.

Under Burma’s military junta, the country’s press was one of the least free in the world, with private daily newspapers not permitted and publications required to run content past a censorship board. And while Burma’s media is de facto much freer than in the past, restrictive laws remain in place, pending conclusion of what is turning into a fraught media reform process.

“Going by our meetings yesterday, it looks as if most MPs did not fully read the draft [of the Ministry of Information’s publishing bill],” Thiha Saw told The Irrawaddy. “Or if they did read the MOI draft, they did not have time to read our objections to it before voting.

“The MPs are all so busy, they have already passed 68 bills in 30 months of Parliament,” he added.

Other media-related reforms on the cards include a proposed public service broadcasting bill and an upcoming revision of the Electronic Transactions Law, which was used to jail dissidents under the old military regime. Revision of the latter code could include the tabling of a related cyber bill, according to those involved in the drafting process.

But much-needed reforms could end up being glossed-over by lawmakers in a hurry to enact change before the elections take place in 2015. “This government has only 13 months left to implement reforms,” Ye Htut told The Irrawaddy on Monday.