Myanmar media groups say draft legislation marks a return to censorship




Media organisations, including the Myanmar Press Council, have unanimously objected to the Ministry of Information’s draft press bill that was published in state-run newspapers on February 27.

The draft legislation violates the right to free publication guaranteed by Article 354 (A) of the Constitution, they say.

They called the draft legislation dishonest, saying its eight chapters and 28 sections aimed to manipulate the media and control printing and publishing.

The draft legislation marks a return to the censorship of the past, they said, explaining that it requires those who want to print, publish and open news agencies to register their business with a registration officer appointed by the ministry who has the right to suspend or cancel the publication permit.

Aung Kyi, who became Information Minister on August 27 last year, revoked the Myanmar Core Press Council and temporarily formed the Myanmar Press Council. The minister said that the interim press council and his ministry would jointly draft the press law.

The publication of the draft legislation came as a shock to the interim press council, which is drafting a separate media law. Media organisations responded by releasing a statement objecting to what they described as a one-sided press law.

The draft legislation is designed to replace the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act. Rules used by the press scrutiny board in the past are found in Section 7 of Chapter 3 of the draft legislation, a statement from the Myanmar Journalists Union said.

The punishment and penalties are more severe than those of the past, it said.

The draft legislation contains a number of restrictions, including reporting on clashes between ethnic groups and producing articles that “violate” the junta-drafted Constitution.

The draft legislation allows jail terms of up to six months for reporters working without valid accreditation.

Analysts say the new legislation revives the Press Scrutiny Registration Department by creating a “registration official” in charge of issuing licences and identifying any publications containing “unlawful” material.

The draft legislation will keep printers and publishers as well as media professionals under the control of the Ministry of Information, the Myanmar Journalists Association said.

The proposed legislation was adopted without seeking input from the public or media professional, the Myanmar Journalists Network said. Freedom of the press is not only for those who work in the media but also for the public, it said, adding that this was why it would launch public protests against the legislation.

The interim press council said it would submit a letter of objection to President Thein Sein.

It was formed by the President’s Office and the Ministry of Information.

“To be frank, the act of issuing a draft press law by the Ministry of Information completely disregarded the Myanmar Press Council, tarnishing the image of the council,” council secretary Kyaw Min Swe said.

Myanmar Journalists Union member Zaw Thet Htwe said the union would “continue to reject the proposed press law”. “We will gather the necessary facts and submit them to Parliament. We, all media persons, need to hold a discussion about how to express disagreement. Only if all the media persons join hands can we protect freedom of press,” Zaw Thet Htwe said.

“I will discuss the points in the press bill that contradict the Human Rights Declaration and the State Constitution when it is sent to Parliament. I will also point out the provisions preventing media criticisms that are identical to those included in the 1962 Printers and Publishers Act,” MP Thein Nyunt said.

Veteran journalist Hanthawady Win Tin also criticised a point in the draft bill that bans private media from publishing articles that go against provisions of the Constitution and other existing laws.

“The Constitution has some provisions that the political parties and ethnic groups cannot accept. Don’t the media have a right to speak out if the people demand that those provisions be amended? Will the government take action against it if the media criticise? There are also disagreeable provisions in existing law. If newspapers write about this, will they be barred from publication?” Win Tin asked.

“The Penal Code states that those who publish writings wrongfully can be sued. If one commits wrongdoing, one will have to take responsibility for this. It is not appropriate to control the Fourth Estate by passing unnecessary new laws. Democratic countries don’t have such a law to overwhelm the media,” said Soe Tint Yi of the Lawyers Network.

“That press bill is trying to restrict media freedom. I don’t understand why they drafted the bill unnecessarily. We oppose it. Although the government said the bill was concerned with printing and publishing, it is also related to websites and news agencies. That bill is unacceptable,” said Myint Kyaw, secretary of Myanmar Journalists Network.

“When the information minister was changed, I joined the interim press council as I was urged to give a hand to write a media law in the interest of journalists. I think it was dishonest of the ministry to have drafted the press bill suddenly without knowledge of the council,” said Zaw Thet Htwe, member of the interim press council.

“The bill is found to have the same procedures and rules as were applied when censorship existed in the country. The ministry’s move could tarnish the image of the union government,” he added.

Although most journalists categorically oppose the unilateral press bill, some publishers have reportedly shown their satisfaction with the bill in meeting with the information minister.

A publisher, who asked not to be named, said the ministry announced the press bill because it was working with crony publishers who wanted to shape the press law because they fear their readers are losing interest in news written by proxy journalists.

“Nay Pyi Taw called a meeting a week before the press bill announcement. Attempts are now underway to interfere with the interim press council,” he said.

Dr Thein Myint, managing director of the Eleven Media Group, said: “The group does not represent all publishers. We are also one of the publishers. They are opportunists only. If they continue to do so without serving the media interest, they will be marginalised.”

Journalists also said media freedom is essential in a democratic country and if the information ministry continues to restrict this it will be preventing the clean government and good governance president Thein Sein says he wants from emerging.

“This press bill has some provisions that can limit press freedom. Without free media expression, Myanmar will not be able to pave the way for democracy. Then, the president’s motto will not come true. Without freedom of expression, the rule of law cannot prevail as both President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi have said. Corruption and bribery cases can be reduced only if the media expose them. If there are restrictions on media, such impropriate acts will still remain and the country will never develop,” said Thura Aung, editor in charge of Messenger News Journal.

Famous writer Dr. Khin Maung Nyo said: “The press bill does not describe when licenses will be issued after applying for publication permit. It does not mention how much must be paid. We are just criticising the Constitution, not violating. No Constitution is always perfect. They [the government] think demands for constitutional amendments can affect the rule of law or amount to breaching the Constitution. Such a stance can restrict media freedom.”

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