Analysis: Will Burma change its media laws?
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Analysis: Will Burma change its media laws?

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People read weekly journals to buy at a roadside shop in Yangon, Burma. Pic: AP.

Burma spent roughly five decades under the military dictatorship. During those years, the regime enforced several oppressive laws,  especially on free expression and free press. Before the 1962 military coup, Burma was at the forefront of press freedom in Southeast Asia. There were around three dozen newspapers, including English, Chinese and Hindi dailies under a civilian government. Journalists were free to set up relations with international press agencies.

The Printers and Publishers Registration Law was introduced shortly after the 1962 military coup that brought Gen Ne Win and his Burma Socialist Programme Party to power. Under this law all printers and publishers are required to register and submit copies of books, magazines and periodicals to Press Scrutiny Boards (PSB) prior to publication or production, or in some cases after.

After the 1988 people’s uprising, the junta introduced more media restrictions such as the 1996 Television and Video Act, the 1996 Computer Science Development Act, the 2002 Wide Area Network Order and the 2004 Electronics Transactions Law.

It is true that there have been some positive changes recently i.e. journals can publish Aung San Suu Kyi and her father’s pictures; some former restricted topics are now allowed; and some journals are allowed to publish prior to censorship.

However, the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD) and Burma’s Censorship Office are still powerful and active. Corruption, civil war, government mismanagement and several political topics cannot be reported on. Journalists are not allowed attend peace talks between government and ethnic groups.

Such reform does not represent a policy change. To initiate a real change in media field, the government should totally get rid of the laws that suppress freedom of expression. However, the civilian government is reluctant to amend these laws. Journalists are under close scrutiny and often work undercover.

During the people’s parliament session of Myanmar (Burma) on February 17, MP Tin Maung Oo of Shwe-pyi-tha constituency asked questions on the media issue. The Deputy Minister for Information Soe Win replied that a press law has been drafted and a press council will be formed in accordance with the new law.

At present there is no journalists’ association to promote and protect the rights of media professionals in Burma. And the future press council should not be a government-appointed guild similar to the Myanmar Human Rights Commission.

On January 30-31, the new media law, drafted by the Ministry of Information’s Press Scrutiny and Registration Department (PSRD) was introduced at a two-day media workshop jointly organized by the Myanmar Writers and Journalists Association and Singapore-based Asia Media Information and Communication Centre (AMIC). Tint Swe, the deputy director general of the PSRD, presented some hints of the draft law but not the subject matter of the press law.

However, a source close to PSRD said that the draft law itself was adapted from the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act ratified after the military coup by the late Gen Ne Win. Furthermore, the draft law was prepared by the PSRD under the guidelines of the Information Minister. This was an unacceptable drafting process in the absence of media professionals.

If the government has a plan to draw up a press law, it should allow the participation of experienced journalists, editors, producers and publishers from respective media fields. Furthermore, the government should invite media law experts, journalism consultants, human rights defenders and members of media watchdog groups internationally in order to create a standardized press law and press council to honor the freedom of the press.

The government must consider abolishing the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act, and completely overhauling the laws that restrict freedom of expression, such as the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, Article 505/B of the Criminal Code and the 1923 Official Secrets Act.

The most serious issue is that the proposed draft media law only focuses on the print media and therefore it is not enough. In the age of the Internet, it is necessary to amend the 1933 Burma Wireless Telegraphy Act, the 1996 Television and Video Act, the 1996 Computer Science Development Law, 2002 Wide Area Network Order and the 2004 Electronics Transactions Law.

Unless the government throws away those oppressive laws, current reforms in media will be regarded as window dressing.