Burma clampdown gathers pace as legislation passed

In a clear step backwards for press freedom in Burma, new legislation will give the government censorship powers and the sole authority to issue and revoke news publication licenses. While the legislation enshrines into law broad press freedom guarantees, specific provisions will give the Ministry of Information ultimate power over what news is permissible for publication.

On March 4, Burma’s parliament passed both the Media Bill and Printers and Publishers Regulation Bill after over a year of deliberation and numerous revisions to earlier drafts. Both bills–the former devised by the journalist-led Myanmar Press Council, the latter by the Ministry of Information–will become law when they are signed by President Thein Sein, which he is expected to do without request for amendment this month, according to media reports.

Both bills fall substantially short of hopes among local journalists and press groups that the legislation would free the press from heavy-handed state intervention and oversight. The previous ruling military junta maintained a pre-publication censorship board that broadly banned critical reporting in the name of maintaining national security, social order, and ethnic harmony, among other overbroad and ill-defined topics.

While Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government dismantled that censorship regime in 2012, allowing for unprecedented critical reporting of the government and its policies, provisions in the new legislation retain the state’s censorship powers. The Printers and Publishers Regulation Bill, similar to the draconian law that preceded it, bans the publication of materials that “insult religion,” “disturb the rule of law,” “incite unrest,” “violate the constitution” or “harm ethnic unity,” according to press reports.

Offenses under the law will be penalized with fines, an improvement from an earlier version of the bill that allowed for prison terms. The Myanmar Press Council and other groups including CPJ advocated for the removal of that provision. Journalists were frequently jailed for deemed breaches of the previous junta’s censorship guidelines; all were released in 2012 under conditional presidential pardons as part of Thein Sein’s reform program.   

Advocacy efforts, however, failed to block the legislation’s creation of a new registrar position which will have sweeping powers to grant and revoke publishing licenses. Journalists told CPJ that the measure will inevitably engender self-censorship among editors due to fears their licenses could be revoked for news coverage perceived as sensitive, including reports on ongoing ethnic and rising intra-religious tensions across the country.

Government authorities have been highly critical of local and foreign news coverage of recent violence against the country’s persecuted ethnic Rohingya minority. With the passage of the new legislation, the Ministry of Information’s registrar will have the legal power to ban publications for news coverage it deems as having “incited unrest” or undermined “ethnic unity.”

While bans of news publications were beyond legal challenge under the previous junta’s censorship regime, the new legislation allows for court challenges of cases of registrar-revoked publication licenses. However, until political reforms free the judiciary from political influence, legal recourse will likely remain a dead end for journalists who challenge state authority. And still on the books are other repressive laws that allow for the detention and legal harassment of journalists–such as the Electronics Act, Official Secrets Act, and criminal defamation.

In a sign that authorities are already chafing under the more open reporting environment, four reporters and a senior executive with the local Unity Weekly news journal were detained last month on charges under the Official Secrets Act for reporting on an alleged secret chemical weapons facility in the country’s central region. Formal hearings in the criminal case begin on March 17; if found guilty of the charges they each face a potential 14 years in prison. After releasing all 14 journalists behind bars in 2012, there are now five journalists in detention in Burma.

Authorities have also recently clamped down on foreign reporters’ access. In February, Deputy Minister of Information Ye Htut announced his office would reduce the period of visiting foreign journalists’ visas from three months with multiple entries to one month with a single entry. The move came in the wake of strong government criticism of an Associated Press article in January that cited anonymous sources to report on a massacre of ethnic Rohingya in a remote village in western Rakhine State where journalists are typically barred.

Earlier this month, the Ministry of Information denied a journalist visa to Time magazine reporter Hannah Beech to attend a media-related conference held in Rangoon. The denial was in apparent response to a Time cover story last year featuring a radical Burmese Buddhist monk under the title “The Face of Buddhist Terror” that authorities banned from distribution in the country. Ye Htut justified his ministry’s decision to deny Beech a visa by saying her presence at the conference “could bring undesirable consequences on the event and to her.” 

[Reporting from Bangkok]