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Burma’s Media Freedom: One step Forward, Two Steps Back

July 1, 2013

As in other areas of democratisation in Burma, there are mixed signals from the authorities on emancipating of the country’s media. While on the one hand the military-civilian government has sanctioned private publications after 40 years, new laws restricting media freedom have also been proposed. Meanwhile, as Buddhists intensify their violent campaign against Muslims in the country, the distribution of a foreign publication critical of militant Buddhist monks was stopped.
April this year Burma saw the publication of privately owned newspapers – the first time in 40 years. The official body controlling censorship, the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD) set up under Printers and Publishers Registration Act of 1962 was also dissolved recently.
However, the euphoria was short-lived as Burma’s Ministry of Information has proposed a new set of regulations on the media and presented them to Parliament on February 27.
“We congratulate the Burmese government for approving the publication of privately-owned dailies, which is a big step forward and shows that the country’s leaders want to put an end to the military propaganda of the past,” said the Paris-based international media freedom monitor Reporters without Borders (RSF) in a statement on March 7.
“But we are worried by repressive provisions in the new draft law on printing and publishing. The government must scrap this bill, which would endanger the fragile progress that Burma has made since the reform process began in 2011. It is important that the government should work with the Press Council on the drafting of new media laws, as originally agreed,” said RSF.
RSF’s Press Freedom Index 2013 places Burma 151stof 179 countries.
It appears that journalists and free speech advocates are angered for two, interrelated reasons. One is that the bill is vague and restrictive; the second is because it has been submitted to parliament without consulting journalist unions in contravention of what was perceived as a partnership between media practitioners and the government.
According to RSF, under the proposed laws publications could be declared illegal for reasons such as “dangerous for national reconciliation or hurtful for religions, “disturb the rule of law” or “violating the constitution and other existing laws.”
It is of interest to those comparing media regimes in different countries that the vagueness of the proposed media laws in Burma are similar to the draft code of media ethics proposed by the Sri Lanka government (see Code of Ethics to Stifle Sri Lanka’s Media).
“It’s really a great risk for the publishers, editors, correspondents and even the distributors of the dailies in such a time of vagueness,” says Zin Linn in an article on the proposed laws published in the website Asian Correspondent on June 16. He said concerns about possible re-imposition of censorship were voiced at a recent meeting hosted by the Foreign Correspondents Club in Thailand where media groups from Burma had participated. He noted the general trend in the discussion was that media in Burma was “at crossroads,” with the government not wanting to lift control while the people demanded greater freedom.
Meanwhile, journalists are also displeased that the Burmese government did not consult them on the bill. RSF said this was despite an agreement with journalist unions to form a 30-member Press Council in which the government would have 10 places. “Local media associations were not consulted in the drafting process and were unable to make any suggestions. National and international organizations that defend media freedom have voiced strong criticism of the bill,” RSF said.
Linn quotes Shawn Crispin Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ): “If passed in its current form, the draft law will essentially replace Burma’s old censorship regime with a similarly repressive new one … 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.”
Meanwhile, a foreign magazine with content on majority Buddhists attacking Muslims in Burma has resulted in a decision not to distribute the publication. Sole distributor of Time in Burma, Inwa Publications, decided not to sell the July 1 issue of publication which has the picture of militant Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu with the blurb “The Face of Buddhist Terror.”
“It (the decision not to sell Time) shows that there has been no change in the government’s desire to control news and information and to assume the right to apply prior censorship whenever it deems this to be necessary. This is an unacceptable step backwards for media freedom in Burma. The authorities must rescind this decision and face the problems head-on,” commented RSF in a statement on June 26.
Interestingly the media bill discussed earlier also include regulations on “importing” newspapers, which very probably will govern the import and distribution of magazines like Time if it becomes law. The draft law states: “‘no one may sell, publish, print, distribute, export or import newspapers declared illegal in accordance.’ The penalties for violating the law are severe – jail terms of up to six months for journalists and fines of up to 12,000 dollars for publishing without permission,” said RSF

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.