Today is the World Press Freedom Day designated by the UN General Assembly in 1993.  “Safe to Speak: Securing Freedom of Expression in All Media” is the theme of this year.

“Every day, freedom of expression faces new threats. Because they help ensure transparency and accountability in public affairs, journalists are frequent targets of violence,” said Secretary-General Ban and Irina Bokova, Director-General of the UNESCO, in a joint message for World Press Freedom Day, observed each year on 3 May.

In Burma (Myanmar), Press freedom is currently at a turning point. The quasi-civilian government led by ex-general Thein Sein would like to maintain the country under limited democracy while the majority population desires a new stage of change. Especially, citizens are demanding freedom of expression and association while the government is rigidly vetoing the basic rights of the citizens.

If the Thein Sein Government is straightforward concerning democratic reforms, the media must be free at the beginning since access to information is fundamental to a healthy democracy. But in Burma, not only the political opponents but also journalists and social-activists are still under the inflexible reins of the military-backed regime.

Burmese Journalists have welcomed the reform process managed by the existing government, for instance, it has dissolved the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD) during a cabinet meeting on 24 January of this year. Although President Thein Sein promises of better press freedom, several journalists are still skeptical due mainly to his previous position as a Prime Minister and Lieutenant-General in the State Peace and Development Council or military junta.

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)

Noticeably, the dissolution of the censorship office was the result of the unity of journalists. The PSRD defended its rigid role up to the last breath. It was a historic and extraordinary event which occurred on 1 August last year that ninety-two journalists from Myanmar Journalists’ Association (MJA), Myanmar Journalists’ Network (MJN) and Myanmar Journalists’ Union (MJU) wearing black T-shirts decorated with the catchphrase ‘STOP KILLING PRESS’ launched a demonstration in the former capital Rangoon protesting against the suspension of two journals – the Voice Weekly and the Envoy Journal.

In their press-release, the journalists stated that if the government endorsed a ‘Press Law’ without seeking advice from the stakeholders in the press, they would not recognize any outcome concerning the new bill. Media watchdog groups have been urging the authorities to abandon the unprincipled laws governing freedom of expression, especially the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act and other oppressive laws.

In a time of democratic reform, the dissolution of the censor-office is not enough. The government has  an obligation to revoke the undemocratic laws such as the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act, the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, article 505-B of the criminal code, the 1975 State Protection Law, the 1996 Television and Video Act, the 1996 Computer Science Development Act, the 2002 Wide Area Network Order and the 2004 Electronics Transactions Law. Without dumping those media oppressive laws, the press will not be free in Burma.

Looking back into near past, on 27 February, the media groups of Burma – Myanmar Journalists’ Association (MJA), Myanmar Journalists’ Network (MJN) and Myanmar Journalists’ Union (MJU) – had protested against the draft Printing and Publishing Law drawn by Ministry of Information (MOI) submitted to the Parliament.

Several journalists along with the ‘Committee For Freedom of Press (Myanmar)’ gathered at a media workshop in Yangon on 12 March calling the government to revoke the draft 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 annoyed due to no different to the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Law.

The most important point of the making of the draft media law is to base on openness which by other means to be transparent. 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 hurried up submitting the bill to the House.

So, people think the act of MOI as a kind of dishonest action. In fact, MOI has promised the assignment of drawing a draft media law should be implemented by the ‘Interim Press Council’. The latest ‘Interim Press Council’ was formed by referencing international standard of “Co-regulatory System’, as mentioned on the website of the MOI.

Most journalists believe that press council members’ major responsibility is to help drafting the press law. But, to everyone’s astonishment, the authority reveal “Printing and Publishing Enterprise Law Draft Bill” in their newspapers without seeking advice from the stakeholders of the press. The move seems to cause misdemeanor towards the media personnel including the frontline journalists. The act of MOI seems to contravene the power of the press council

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 print media sphere.

The MOI’s draft law, which planned swap over the 1962 publishing law, provides the regime’s information ministry 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 part of the draft bill is “5 restrictions” states visibly in the ‘chapter 3’. In brief,  chapter three refers not to print or publish 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 suppressive rubber band prescriptions.

The draft law also allows 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 MOI’s draft law recommends fining unlawful or unlicensed publishing with a penalty of 1 million kyats (US$ 1,177) to 5 million kyats (US$ 5,882) or six months imprisonment.

Concerning Burma’s press freedom, Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) says in its press freedom report (2013), “To date, there is not much tangible proof of media reform, apart from the dissolution of the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division, and the publication of private news dailies that began on 1 April 2013.”

However, there was a good signal that the media groups protest has caused the parliament to make a response during a session that they will at least wait to exchange ideas on the MOI’s  bill for a few months. For the time being, the obligation is on the shoulder of the ‘Interim Press Council’ to propose a well-defined press law bill. So far, no one could say the outcome of the media reform or the consultation process, as the representatives of the journalists keep on with drafting their press law.