March 17, 2014
His Excellency Thein Sein
Republic of the Union of Burma
Ministry of the President’s Office
Via facsimile: +95-1-652-624
Dear President Thein Sein:
We are writing to express our concern about shrinking press freedom in Burma and urge you to veto media legislation that was passed this month by your country’s parliament. The bill, which awaits your signature, maintains a censorship role for state authorities and threatens to reverse several of the gains achieved to date under your democratic reform program.
The Printers and Publishers Registration Bill, which was drafted by the Ministry of Information without the input of journalists, fails through various provisions to free the press from decades of heavy-handed state oversight. In particular, the legislation bans broadly the publication of any materials that “insult religion,” “disturb the rule of law,” “incite unrest,” “violate the constitution,” or “harm ethnic unity.”
Moreover, a newly created registrar under the legislation will have sweeping discretionary power to issue and revoke publishing licenses. CPJ research shows that similar bodies in other countries frequently abuse their authority for political purposes, pressuring publications with the threat of revoking their licenses into self-censoring coverage of topics deemed sensitive.
These provisions are inconsistent with your calls in previous speeches for the press to function as the “fourth pillar” of your country’s new democratic order. While CPJ has welcomed certain Burmese policies toward the press, including the release of imprisoned journalists and the ending of pre-publication censorship of news journals in 2012, more recent events have contradicted your pledges to allow for greater press freedom.
A case in point are the Official Secrets Act charges recently pressed against four Unity Weekly journalists for their coverage of an alleged chemical weapons facility in Burma’s central region. If convicted of the broad and ill-defined charges, they each face 14 years in prison. Your government has also recently taken steps to restrict foreign reporting by curbing the duration of journalist visas and blocking access to violence-wracked areas of the country.
These actions point to a mounting clampdown on press freedom similar to the repression journalists faced under the military junta in which you served as prime minister. Your government could restore confidence in its reform intention by scrapping the media legislation that now awaits your approval and by moving to revoke Burma’s other laws that are used to harass, threaten, and jail journalists.
Thank you for your attention. We look forward to your prompt reply.
Sai Mauk Kham, vice president of Burma
Derek Mitchell, U.S. ambassador to Burma
Than Swe, Burma ambassador to U.S.
Roland Kobia, EU ambassador to Burma