Draft media law a step backward for Burma

Bangkok, March 1, 2013–Draft legislation designed to govern the media in Burma threatens to reverse fragile press freedom gains recently achieved under President Thein Sein’s democratic reform program, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

The draft Press Law Bill (2013) bans reporting on several vague topics, including any news or commentary critical of the military-drafted 2008 constitution, and allows for six-month prison sentences for failing to register news publications with the government, according to a copy of the legislation published on Wednesday in the daily government-owned newspaper New Light of Myanmar.

The draft bill will soon be deliberated by the country’s military-influenced parliament. It was drawn up by the Ministry of Information without input from independent press groups, according to news reports. The draft law is designed to replace the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act, legislation that was frequently used to harass and imprison journalists under the previous ruling military junta.

The draft law also calls for the appointment of a new “registration official,” who will be charged with issuing publishing licenses and monitoring the media for violations of new censorship guidelines. According to news reports, the law’s proposed guidelines prohibit the publication of any news that could “disturb the rule of law,” “incite unrest,” or “violate the constitution and other existing laws.”

“If passed in its current form, the draft law will essentially replace Burma’s old censorship regime with a similarly repressive new one,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “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.”

News reports citing local media groups raised concerns that the new “registration official” created under the draft law will be empowered to censor and punish local media. Last August, the government announced an end to its decades-old pre-publication censorship regime. In January, the government’s Press Scrutiny and Registration Division censorship body was formally abolished.

Until now, all private news publications in Burma have been forced to publish as weeklies rather than dailies to accommodate the government’s time-consuming pre-censorship requirements, a restriction that will officially be lifted on April 1. However, local journalists and editors have complained that existing restrictive laws like the 2004 Electronics Act and 2000 Internet Act, both of which allow for prison sentences for violations, have engendered more self-censorship since the end of official pre-publication censorship.