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

The state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper has intentionally published the Press Law draft bill namely ‘Printing and Publishing Business Draft Bill’ on Wednesday. The draft bill was believed to be drawn by the Ministry of Information. It is amazing that the Information Ministry even did not say a word to any member of the press on this matter.

The worst and most controversial part of the draft bill is ‘5 restrictions’ stated in the ‘chapter 3’. In brief,  chapter three mentions 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 related unlawful activities; writings against the current constitution and existing laws. Many journalists consider the 5 restrictions as suppressive rubber band prescriptions.

Looking back into last year, on August 1, 92 journalists from Myanmar Journalists’ Association (MJA), Myanmar Journalists’ Network (MJN) and Myanmar Journalists’ Union (MJU) held a meeting in Yangon and formed the ‘Committee for Freedom of Press’ and then released a seven-point press statement.

The statement demands the sacking of persons who oppose the reform plan while the country has been on a track of democratic change. It also claims that laws governing freedom of expression are terminated, especially the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act.

Besides, the journalists declared that if the government endorsed a ‘Press Law’ without seeking advice from the stakeholders of the press, they will not accept any outcome concerning the new bill.

On 9 August last year, Burmese Government released its Notification No. 61/2012 stating the formation of 20-member ‘Myanmar Core Press Council’ (MCPC), the state-run media said on 10 August. It also stated that, before the emergence of Press Media Laws, members of the media will be permitted to freely express and publish their beliefs and opinions, providing they are not against the law. The Press Media Laws will be approved by the Union Parliament in due course, the Notification said.

As a result, the ‘Organizing Committee for Myanmar Journalists Association’ released a statement dated 10 August objecting that some of the points were unacceptable designed for the MCPC. It says that “Duties and responsibilities of MCPC” and “Authorities of MCPC” not only fell short to protect the ‘Rights of Journalists’ but also carefully limited the media personnel’s routine careers. Hence, the majority of journalists in the country did not support the MCPC, because the body was formed without prior discussion with media professionals and journalists.

However, on 27 August, 2012, Aung Kyi was appointed as new Information Minister and he met with reliable media personnel, including Myanmar Journalists Association (MJA), the Myanmar Journalists Network (MJN) and the Myanmar Journalists Union (MJU). Then, the new minister gave consent to reform the MCPC.

Information Minister Aung Kyi attended the meeting of creation of a new press council on 17 Sept. 2012.(Photo: http://www.ministryofinformation.gov.mm)

On 17 September, an interim press council was reshaped at the Chatrium Hotel in Yangon. It emerged as a substitution for MCPC. In fact, this newly established press council came into view since the majority of media personnel rejected the formation of MCPC. 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.

The new interim press council has chosen retired Supreme Court Judge Khin Maung Aye as the chairman who was the same chairman in the previous MCPC. However, the deputy chairman of the new press council is well-known journalist and author Maung Wuntha, who is the chairman of MJA. Kyaw Min Swe of The Voice Journal has been chosen as the secretary and the deputy secretary is Nan Kalyar Win from the Fame Media.

According to earlier news, the interim Press Council will draft a code of conduct and will also be called to offer its input in rewriting a draft media law proposed by the Information Ministry. Most journalists believe that press council members’ major responsibility would be helping to draft the press law.

But now, to everyone’s surprise, the authority uncover ‘Printing and Publishing Business Draft Bill’ in their newspaper without seeking advice from the stakeholders of the press. The move seems to cause misdemeanor towards the media personnel including the frontline journalists.

London-based rights group Article 19 releases a statement Wednesday titling “Myanmar: Press bill falls far short of international law and would leave press open to abuse”.

The organization says in its statement that the new press bill to be submitted to Parliament “retains a vagueness that will leave the print media open to abuse from the government and other powerful actors.”

Article 19 also points out in its statement: “The bill violates international law by requiring press outlets to obtain permission or licences in order to operate. A government that decides who can run a newspaper, magazine or news website in effect controls the media.”

On the role of the Press Council, the statement says, “The bill preserves a statutory Press Council under the control of the president, therefore placing control and penalties for the press in the hands of the government. The president decides who will be on the council, and as there is no provision covering funding or competence, will presumably decide what it will do, leaving it wide open to abuse.”

Moreover, Article 19 gives a recommendation concerning the press council: “A press council should be created by the press itself through a process of consultations with participation from all stakeholders. If such a council is mandated by the state in statute, it should include a clear guarantee of independence from government influence.”

However, Article 19 recognized both positive and negative aspects in the draft bill. “On the positive side, it repeals draconian laws and replaces them with provisions that proclaim human rights. On the negative side it falls substantially below international freedom of expression standards,” it said.