A draft law threatening to damage progress toward press freedom in Myanmar is being scrutinized by journalists on the country’s newly established press council.
Journalists on the council said the Ministry of Information is listening to concerns about the draft Printers and Publishers Enterprise Law, which caused an outcry in March when the government submitted it to parliament without consulting local media.
“We’ve talked a couple times with officials from the ministry,” Thiha Saw, a member of the press council and deputy chief of the Myanmar Journalists Association, told The Irrawaddy.
The press council is in the process of drafting a separate law to safeguard media freedom in the country. Thiha Saw said the council was in talks with the ministry to make sure that the two bills did not “overlap or conflict with” each other. He added that the government had pledged to amend the bill, diluting the ministry’s power to grant and revoke publication licenses.
If passed into statute in its current state, the draft printers and publishers bill would allow the Ministry of Information to revoke or terminate publication licenses for “disturbing the rule of law,” “inciting unrest” or “violating the Constitution.”
This is seen as a return to media censorship by some. “We say registration should not be controlled by the Ministry of Information. They will change that—they have promised to change that,” said Thiha Saw.
Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative at the US-based press watchdog, the Committee to Protect Journalists, criticized the Myanmar government’s decision to send its printers and publishers bill to parliament without consulting journalists.
“The fact that the Ministry of Information was drafting this law, pretty much in the dark without the knowledge of local press groups, shows there is still resistance at the ministry to these liberalizing reforms,” he said.
He added that the draft law includes censorship guidelines that use “the same vague language of the old laws”.
“Journalists are not allowed to write against the Constitution or present news that could incite violence, and these are very vague terms that have been used and abused in an arbitrary fashion in the past,” he said.
But Ye Htut, Myanmar’s deputy minister of information told The Irrawaddy: “The draft bill is not about journalists or the press. It’s about registering printing presses and publishers. It’s to prevent hate speech, pornography and [to protect] public safety.”
Meanwhile, the Myanmar government awarded licenses to 10 more private daily newspapers earlier this week. The new titles include National Time Daily, Daily Eleven News, Myanma Freedom Daily, The Nagani Daily, Dana Business Daily, Warazein Daily, Newswatch Daily, The Pyi Myanmar Daily, Myanmar Post Daily and the International Herald Tribune, according to the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper.
Private daily newspapers started publishing in Myanmar last month after a 45-year ban. The old rules meant private titles could only publish once a week. But 16 weekly news journals were permitted to become dailies on April 1.
Friday May 3 is World Press Freedom day. To mark the day, a report by the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (Seapa) urged Myanmar to consolidate the gains that it had made toward boosting media freedom.
It warned that the draft printers and publishers bill “is a threatening indicator of the direction of that the Myanmar government is taking”. “The government still seems bent to retain control of the press and right to freedom of opinion and expression,” the report said.
A separate Seapa report on press freedom in Thailand said the Thai media is struggling with ethical issues, political polarization and the constraints of the lese majeste law.
“The Thai media continues its soul-searching for the correct balance between ethical responsibility and freedom of speech, which is currently being exercised over the political stream with no solution or remedy to the political divide,” the report claimed.
“While the print media revisits the effectiveness of its self regulatory regime, the broadcast sector is also searching for the right framework to regulate the booming digital broadcast industry which could see an unprecedented volume of new content to feed the increased number of television channels.”
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