New York, June 13, 2013--Burma's media continue to face threats and obstacles to free reporting despite recent reforms, according to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released today. A new draft publishing bill and the failure to reform existing restrictive laws jeopardize still limited freedoms of expression and the press.
"The changes in Burma's media landscape are palpable, with no journalists in jail, newspapers reporting on certain sensitive subjects, and websites unblocked," said Shawn Crispin, CPJ's senior Southeast Asia representative and author of the report. "But recent steps backward on press freedom cast serious doubt on the government's commitment to a more open reporting environment."
The report, entitled "Burma Falters, Backtracks on Press Freedom," recognizes Burma's significant steps forward while highlighting new, more subtle modes of control which threaten to reverse these achievements. A draft Printing and Publishing Bill, for instance, could force newspapers to submit stories on certain topics for pre-publication scrutiny, and a new registrar would have sweeping authority to grant, renew, and revoke publishing licenses.
CPJ interviewed dozens of Burmese reporters and editors, including some recently returned from exile; many said they feel that authorities have allowed only enough freedom to relieve international pressure. Restrictive laws held over from the previous military regime still allow for prison sentences for publishing information that authorities deem a threat to stability. Vague legal definitions leave journalists vulnerable to arbitrary prosecution, fostering self-censorship.
"Freedom of expression and the press are vital components of a robust and stable democracy," Crispin said. "President Thein Sein should follow up on his public statements promoting press freedom with meaningful and irrevocable legal reforms. In recent months, his administration has moved worryingly in the opposite direction."
Planned foreign investments in mobile infrastructure promise to expand Internet access, but a draft telecommunications law would leave intact many of the same legal restrictions used in the past to curb online freedoms, including the draconian 2004 Electronics Act.
Abolition or amendment of such legislation is CPJ's first recommendation to the Burmese government, along with scrapping the draft Printing and Publishing Bill in favor of a separate law being drafted by the Myanmar Press Council. These efforts must be supported by the international community, which should hinge economic and diplomatic engagement to an improved human rights record, including sustained progress on press freedom. Similarly, private investment by international companies should be dependent on Burma demonstrating and maintaining media and Internet openness. Burmese journalists, meanwhile, should strive to speak with a unified voice, maintaining an independent identity free of government influence, CPJ stressed.
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