The media groups of Burma – Myanmar Journalists’ Association (MJA), Myanmar Journalists’ Network (MJN) and Myanmar Journalists’ Union (MJU) – recently protested against the draft of the Printing and Publishing Law drawn up by the Ministry of Information (MOI) submitted to Parliament on 27 February, 2013.

Several journalists, along with the Committee For Freedom of Press (Myanmar), gathered at a media workshop at the Yuzana Garden Hotel in Yangon on 12 March calling the government to revoke the drafted Printing and Publishing Bill.

The MOl’s draft bill systematically put up the grip of government on the print media freedom. It made certain its supremacy to exploit on license certificates as per revoking or fining.  The clause makes the journalists angry due to the fact that it is no different from the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Law that was enacted by the late Gen. Ne Win, the Chairman of the Revolutionary Council of the Union of Burma.

Several journalists, along with the Committee For Freedom of Press (Myanmar) gathered at a media workshop at the Yuzana Garden Hotel in Yangon on 12 March calling on the government to revoke the draft Printing and Publishing Bill. (Photo: Committee For Freedom of Press (Myanmar) FB)

The important point of the making of the draft bill is that it be based on honesty and transparency. It was the practice of the dictatorial regime to run the country by way of undisclosed mechanism. Currently, most journalists believe that the MOI has drawn the draft behind closed doors and even without consulting the interim press council, it hastened submitting the bill to the House.

The act of MOI was a kind of dishonest activity. Why? There was a promise of MOI that the task of drawing a media law draft should be implemented by the interim press council.

An interim press council was formed on 17 September 2012, at the Chatrium Hotel in Yangon. It emerged as a substitution for the  Myanmar Core Press Council. Since the majority of media personnel rejected the formation of the MCPC, the press council was a compromise. The latest ‘interim press council’ was formed by referencing international standard of ‘Co-regulatory System’, as mentioned on the website of the Ministry of Information.

According to earlier news, the interim Press Council has been assigned the task of drafting a code of conduct and to offer its input in rewriting a draft media law proposed by the Information Ministry. Most journalists believed that press council members’ major responsibility would be helping to draft the press law. But now, to everyone’s astonishment, the authorities revealed the ‘Printing and Publishing Enterprise Law Draft Bill’ in their newspapers without seeking advice from the stakeholders of the press. The move seems to cause animosity towards the media personnel, including frontline journalists.

According to a report on Tuesday by the Eleven Media Group: “They (the President Office) themselves formed the Press Council (Interim). Also, the Information Minister himself told the press council to redraft the media law from zero draft. Now they tricked us and submitted the Printing and Publishing bill to the Parliament after drafting it in a rush. This seems to overstep the authority (of the press council),” said a member of the press council, who requested not to be named.

“The Press Council (Interim) was formed under the arrangement of the President Office, in cooperation with the Ministry of Information, so they have the responsibility. Now, they still haven’t replied to our letter of objection. I feel that both the President and the Information Minister are not gentlemen,” he added.

Journalists held protest for media freedom on August 5, 2012. (Pic: AP)

The more complicated question is that the MOI’s draft bill included radio and television plus Internet-based media, excepting print media. So, observers think the MOI has trespassed beyond the boundary of the  print media sphere.

The MOI’s draft law, which is meant to be swapped over the 1962 publishing law, provides the regime’s information ministry’s wide-ranging powers to call off publishing licenses, control press competence and charge journalists as running against the state’s safety measures.

The most debatable parts of the draft bill are the ‘5 restrictions’ stated visibly in the ‘chapter 3’. In brief,  chapter three refers not to print or publishing issues concerning incitements to racial and religious hatred; agitations to damage law and order, fueling riots; immoral sexual related matters; supporting violence and crimes, gambling, drugs and methamphetamine interconnected unlawful activities; writings against the current constitution and existing laws. Many journalists consider the 5 restrictions as being meant to suppress press mobility and freedom.

The draft law also allows the regime to assign a new “registration administrator,” who will oversee with issuing publishing licenses and scrutinizing the press whether media personnel violate odd restriction regulations.

The draft law recommends fining unlawful or unlicensed publishing with a penalty of 1 million kyats (US$ 1,177) to 5 million kyats (US$ 5,885) or six months imprisonment.

“If passed in its current form, the draft law will essentially replace Burma’s old censorship regime with a similarly repressive new one,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “Banning news topics and legalizing the jailing of journalists is utterly inconsistent with the press freedom guarantees that authorities vowed the new law would promote. We urge lawmakers to amend this draft in a way that protects, and not restricts, press freedom.”

The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) also advised in its critique – Myanmar draft printer’s law to reverse media freedom gains -  It would be well for the government, particularly the Ministry of Information, to stop the discussion of these draft laws until a draft media law or a legal framework is established to protect journalists and guarantee media freedom.”

“It is also necessary for the other actors in the political sphere, such as the opposition political parties and civil society groups, to claim, as legitimate stakeholders, a role in the process. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, fresh out of its first National Congress over the weekend, has yet to indicate its policy or plans for the promotion of media freedom in the country. The wider community cannot let this be an issue only for the media and the MOI to deal with,” SEAPA said.