Burma's exile media groups can begin applying to establish their operations within the country as the government prepares a new media law lifting most restrictions, the country's censorship chief said Wednesday.
Many exile journalists have returned to Burma in recent months to gauge the new environment amid initial reforms introduced by the nominally civilian government of President Thein Sein. They had been granted visas to visit for the first time in decades.
But there have been no moves by the government to give these groups permission to open offices in the country.
Tint Swe, director of the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department (PSRD), told RFA's Burmese service that approval for the exile media groups to operate in Burma will be based on the proposals they make.
He said the groups should first explain to the government, "how they would implement their operations in the country, [and] our side would have to approve based on the proposals."
"I think exile media will start applying for that privilege and we will give permission as well in the near future," he said.
When asked whether the government will make an announcement on when exile media can apply for permission to operate within the country, Tint Shwe said, "No, we won't have any announcement for that."
"For your part, you should tell us what you want to do and apply for it, that's all you need to do. I don't think it is necessary to tell you when you should apply. You should start doing it now."
Among Burmese exile media groups are The Irrawaddy, an online publication based in Thailand, India-based Mizzima News Agency and the Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma, broadcasting for two decades into one of the world's most oppressed nations.
Officials have said that censorship would be abolished when a new media law is introduced this year as part of government reforms.
"Exciting indeed, but this remark does not really change skeptics into enlightened believers," Aung Zaw, editor of The Irrawaddy, wrote this month after returning to his home country after 25 years of exile following his flight to escape arrest.
"Deep-seated doubts linger as many in the sector share a feeling that the government will find a way to continue controlling the media. Burma still has several draconian security laws and a notorious Electronic Act that can arrest and detain anyone, including journalists, without due process," he said.
Burma is still ranked 169 out of 179 countries in terms of press freedom, according to an index by media watchdog Reporters Without Borders published in January.
Tint Shwe said the new media law being framed will be comprehensive and completed this year with provisions for allowing independent newspapers and a self-governing press council.
"New press laws will include registration [for] media and press council. So, I think the new laws will be comprehensive. We have consulted many laws from other post-transitional countries. Therefore I think that new laws would be comprehensive," he said.
"For media, there will be clear descriptions of their responsibilities and the laws that they should follow."
The attorney general’s office has already reviewed the first draft of the media law and a second draft is now being completed with input from UNESCO experts, a recently held media conference, and domestic groups, Yi Htut, the director general of the Information and Public Relations Division of the Ministry of Information, said earlier this month.
He said that the Burmese government’s approach to drafting its new media law is based on a “two-track strategy”—first preparing a new print media law and, second, allowing a gradual relaxation of restrictions to prepare for a new media environment. The law is currently in the second stage of drafting, the Mizzima News Agency reported.
Tint Shwe rejected suggestions that the new media law will be used to control freedom of speech.
"We must have freedom of expression, according to our approved constitution. Based on that, we want to make clear to everyone that unlike the 1962 [framed] laws, there will be no more restrictions in the future."
The repressive Printers and Publishers Registration Act was enacted in Burma after a 1962 military coup.
Asked to elaborate on the press council proposed by President Thein Sein recently, Tint Shwe said it was in line with the practice of other countries which have bodies to maintain media standards.
"The Press Council or Complaint Committee is a standard body that many countries have. Some countries don't even have one, but somehow there is a control mechanism. In my own opinion, the Press Council should be directed freely without government involvement," he said.
Thein Sein has said that the press council can ensure liberty and accountability with a checks-and-balances system in line with democratic practices, reports have said.
Reported by Kyaw Kyaw Aung for RFA's Burmese service. Translated by Win Naing. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.