A government-appointed group aimed at bringing about media reforms in Myanmar has given the thumbs down to a controversial press law adopted by legislators, saying it ignored the group’s recommendations and restricts freedom of the press.
The Myanmar Press Council (MPC), which comprises mostly working journalists and a retired Supreme Court Judge, said that the Printers and Publishers Regulation Bill passed by the lower House of parliament also gave the government broad powers to issue and revoke publishing licenses.
The Lower House approved the bill with slight amendments from an earlier draft that was retracted after strong criticism from press watchdogs and journalists.
The legislation approved Thursday eliminated provisions giving powers to the authorities to jail journalist who violate rules, replacing them with fines for offenses such as “disturbing the rule of law” and “inciting unrest” or violating the constitution or other existing laws.
The law also requires news outlets to obtain licenses from the Ministry of Information in order to operate, a provision that subjects them to severe censorship, according to the press council, which is an interim body appointed by the government last year to oversee media affairs until the long-awaited new press law is enacted.
Press Council member Myint Kyaw said such provisions were too limiting as Myanmar carries out democratic reforms, adding that it had ignored the council’s recommendations.
“Most of the points suggested by us were skipped over in the new press law,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service after an emergency meeting on the bill.
The Lower House’s endorsement sends the legislation to the Upper House, where a vote of approval would turn it into law.
Myint Kyaw said the council would work to urge the Upper House to make further amendments to the law before approving it.
“They might be able to amend the law in time in accordance with our suggestions, or they might pass it as-is, but either way we need to do what we have to do,” he said.
Under the law, the Ministry of Information would maintain the authority to issue publication licenses as well as revoke or terminate licenses for those who violate rules proposed in the bill.
“We don’t want this [license] registration to be part of the press law,” Pe Myint, press council member and editor of the journal People’s Age told RFA.
He said the restriction, though not as onerous as the pre-publication censorship outlined in the 1962 press law that the current bill is supposed to replace, gives the Ministry of Information too much authority to revoke licenses for publications that publish outspoken content.
“The pre-publication censorship has been abolished, but if you [are required to] register, they will check the publication after printing and then if they don’t like it they can take the license back and take action against you.”
The original version of the bill released in February and sent to parliament faced strong objections from journalists press watchdogs, who said it threatened to reverse gains that have been made since reformist President Thein Sein took over two years ago.
Lawmaker Thein Nyunt said legislators had made several amendments to the earlier version that improved the bill.
“The Draft Law Committee submitted 10 points [for amendment] and a parliamentary committee for sports and culture submitted five points …. Four MPs including myself submitted some amendments,” he said.
“The original press law included penalties of jail sentences, and this was eliminated during the Draft Law Committee’s pre discussion with lawmakers. There are still penalties for fines in the law,” he said.
Thein Nyunt, a member of the opposition New National Democracy Party, said he expected the public would be pleased with the legislation in its current form.
“They might not like it 100 percent, but parliament amended many points of the law [in accordance with recommendations],” he said.
Another amendment limited the time during which news outlets can be sued over their content, he added.
Myanmar, which currently ranks 151 out of 179 countries worldwide on Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index, has taken steps toward relaxing some media restrictions as it emerges from decades of military junta rule.
In April, private daily newspapers hit newsstands in Myanmar for the first time in nearly 50 years, ending a monopoly on daily news by state-owned papers.
Under the country’s previous 1962 media law, prior to publication, all print media had to be approved by a censorship board that would excise anything it opposed.
Reported by Zin Mar Win and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.