Press freedom in Burma (Myanmar) is still in the midst of an uncertain circumstance. Since the majority of media personnel rejected the formation of the Core Press Council, the interim press council was a compromise between the information ministry and defiant journalists. Even though interim press council was formed on 17 September 2012 in Rangoon as a substitution for the Myanmar Core Press Council, its existence will be insecure within a few months.

According to earlier media reports, the interim press council was 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, to everyone’s surprise, the authorities revealed the ‘Printing and Publishing Enterprise Law Draft Bill’ on 27 February without seeking advice from the stakeholders of the press.

In March this year, three media groups – Myanmar Journalists’ Association (MJA), Myanmar Journalists’ Network (MJN) and Myanmar Journalists’ Union (MJU) – protested against the draft Printing and Publishing Law. It was drawn up by the Ministry of Information (MOI) and submitted to Lower House Parliament on 27 February, 2013. They protested because MOI did not consult with media stakeholders before it put forward the draft bill to the House.

The MOI’s draft bill strengthens government control over the print media. Many journalists say that it is no different from the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Law which was enacted by the late Gen. Ne Win, the then Chairman of the Revolutionary Council of the Union of Burma. Some journalists say that the bill just changes the title of the censor officer to registration officer, but his authority is the same as before.

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)

However, the Lower House approved the controversial Printing and Publishing Enterprise Draft Law on 4 July, even though members of the interim press council argued that the bill still includes measures that hinder media freedom. The MOI’s bill was approved by the Lower House while press freedom watchdogs have disapproved of the ministry’s wide-ranging powers to issue and cancel publication licenses.

At some stage in negotiations with the Ministry of Information, press council members called attention to clauses that opposed press freedom. But those unfair clauses were still taken place in the draft law that was approved by the Lower House, Zaw Thet Htwe, a Press Council member, told the media.

Several analysts think it showed the dialogue between the information ministry and the press council was unproductive, and that it could damage future co-operation.

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

The most debatable part of the draft bill are the “5 restrictions” that appear in “chapter 3″. In brief, chapter three warns against publishing on 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 that the 5 restrictions show no clear-cut definitions and could easily be used to silence the press.

On the other hand, there are disagreements between the Myanmar Interim Press Council and the Information Ministry on 17 points in the Media Law drafted by media personnel with the Interim Press Council. On July 24, the Myanmar Press Council, the Information Ministry and the Lower House’s Sports, Culture and Public Relation Development Committee held a tripartite meeting to discuss the Media Bill in the Lower House building in Naypyitaw.

A meeting between the Ministry of Information and interim Press Council on 12 July at the Park Royal Hotel in Yangon focused on addressing issues concerning Myanmar’s controversial media law. No clear-cut solutions emerged to be in sight on basic press freedom issue.

Meanwhile, in support of the Press Council’s draft Media Law, Signatures have been collected in Rangoon, Mandalay, Magwe, Taung-gyi and other towns starting on August 4, as a part of a campaign to put forward the public opinion to the President and members of parliaments. The signatures are being collected by media personnel in the respective areas throughout the country, said Tin Zar Zaw, Editor-in-Charge of Popular Journal and member of Myanmar Journalists Network.

Interim Press Council also met the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann last week and discussed on the hot Printing and Publishing Enterprise Bill which the two leaders said was still having chances to revise the bill before it becomes law.

“The council has still chances to amend the bill before the Upper House and the bicameral house sessions and even there is a final chance putting forward the case to the president,” Referencing Thura Shwe Mann, Tin Zar Zaw said.

Moreover, Burma News International (BNI), composition of 12 ethnic media groups, also supports the Press Council’s Media Law as well as the signature campaign that gets underway for a genuine press freedom.

Most journalists believe the rivalry on media freedom between the MOI and the Press council seems to disclose the reality of the President Thein Sein’s comprehensive reform policy.

International media watchdog groups have been urging the Burmese authorities repeatedly to dump the unethical laws governing freedom of expression. The Burmese government still needs to dump the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Law, the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, article 505-B of the criminal code, the 1996 Television and Video Act, the 1996 Computer Science Development Act, the 1923 Officials Secrets Act and the 1933 Burma Wireless Telegraphy Act which are still threatening the press freedom.