Myanmar’s parliament has adopted the country’s first laws enshrining media freedom since reformist President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian administration came to power in 2011 following decades of military rule.
But the government continues to retain the power to withhold or revoke publishing licenses unilaterally under the Media Bill and the Printers and Publishers Regulation Bill passed late Tuesday.
The two bills had bounced between the lower and upper houses of parliament for months as they underwent significant revisions following pressure on Myanmar to guarantee press freedom as part of the reform agenda pushed by Thein Sein.
The Media Bill, which outlines the rights and obligations of the country’s media and the running of press enterprises, was drafted by the government-appointed Myanmar Press Council (MPC) which advocates self-censorship.
The controversial Printers and Publishers Regulation Bill, drafted by the Ministry of Information without consultation with journalist groups, requires all media enterprises to register with the government or risk fines, suggesting that power of censorship still lies with the country’s authorities.
The bills, to be signed into law soon by Thein Sein, also ban the publication of material that “insults” religion, displays nudity, undermines the “rule of law” or harms ethnic unity.
Initial provisions gave powers to the authorities to jail journalists who violate various rules, but they were replaced with ones that impose fines for offenses such as “disturbing the rule of law” and “inciting unrest” or violating the constitution or other laws.
Reactions to bills
Those who drafted the two bills expressed optimism that the legislation would provide some measure of protection for media freedoms, while safeguarding the interests of the rapidly reforming nation.
Zaw Thet Htway, a member of the MPC, which comprises mostly working journalists, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that he was pleased by what parliament passed of the draft his group had submitted, despite nearly a year of revisions.
“In writing this draft law, we intended to protect the rights of journalists,” Zaw Thet Htway said.
“We went to parliament with multiple drafts to get approval for the bill from both the lower and upper houses and we got more than 75 percent of what we wanted in the law, despite facing many difficulties,” he said.
“I believe that we can have a law that will protect the media now that there is more than 75 percent of what we asked for in the bill.”
Zaw Thet Htway said that the Press Council had tried to consolidate what he said were a number of different laws governing the media into one single piece of legislation in drafting its bill.
“Many different laws were written to control the media, but it is easier to understand media regulations if we have only one law instead of several,” he said.
Ye Htut, deputy minister of the Ministry of Information, said that the number of laws controlling the media is not as important as how those laws are written.
“It is not a problem to have too many or too few laws in this country,” he said.
“What is important is to include good objectives in these laws.”
He said that the Ministry of Information is now preparing guidelines on how the bills could be rewritten if Thein Sein requests changes before approving them and on how the ministry will implement the laws if they are approved.
Thiha Saw, deputy chief of the Myanmar Journalists Association, said any concrete law governing the media would be welcomed by the country’s journalists, regardless of government oversight.
“This is better than before because we were working with no law in place in the past,” he said.
The Ministry of Information is also in the process of writing additional draft laws for the media, including regulations for broadcasting, film, and the use of libraries, Thiha Saw said.
“After these laws are approved, we will be able to protect the rights of all citizens and ethnic groups,” he said, though he acknowledged that the legislation could add additional controls on the media.
Freedom at risk
In 2012, Thein Sein shut down Myanmar’s notorious censorship board and granted private daily newspapers the right to publish for the first time in 50 years, but critics have said that recent moves by the government have threatened those gains and have called for laws to protect them.
Last month, the annual review of freedom of information by global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders questioned whether Myanmar's reforms and democratization under Thein Sein were beginning to run out of steam as the government struggles to resolve sectarian and ethnic conflicts.
In December, a court in Myanmar ordered Ma Khine, a journalist with the Yangon-based award winning press group Eleven Media, to serve three months in prison for trespassing, criminal defamation, and using obscene language.
She is believed to be the first reporter to be jailed since Thein Sein’s reformist government began releasing jailed journalists and lifting long-standing media restrictions in 2012.
Earlier this month, authorities arrested four reporters and the chief executive of the Yangon-based Unity journal and charged them with leaking state secrets after they published a report alleging that Myanmar’s military is operating a secret chemical weapons factory.
The move drew criticism from international rights groups and the Myanmar Journalists’ Council, which called for their immediate release.
Reporters Without Borders rated Myanmar as 151st out of 179 nations in terms of media freedom, but expressed optimism, noting that the country had reached its best position ever based on “unprecedented reforms.”
Reported by Thin Thiri for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.