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Burma: Draft Publishing Law Criticized

(Mar. 7, 2013) Burma is now considering a draft of a new law on publishing, designed to replace the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act. (Law No. 1, 1962, as amended in 1971, IBIBLIO; Hanna Hindstrom, New Draft Printing Law Accused of Preserving “Censorship,” DEMOCRATIC VOICE OF BURMA (Feb. 28, 2013).) The draft was released to the public on February 27, 2013, and was sent to Parliament for consideration five days later, on March 4. (Tha Lun Zaung Htet, Govt Sends Controversial Press Law to Parliament, THE IRRAWADDY (Mar. 4, 2013).)

The 1962 Act had been widely criticized as restricting freedom of the press by banning any printing of material that could be seen as dissenting from the government. Among other provisions, it establishes a registration system for all printing and publishing enterprises (Law No. 1, 1962, Part 4, arts. 6-10) and states that no business can be registered to publish if they have a plan to “harm the ideology and views” of the government. (Id. art. 10.) The Act had also required that copies of publications be submitted to a censorship board, the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division; that Division was abolished in January of this year. (Hindstrom, supra.)

Criticism of the Draft Publishing Law

The draft replacement legislation has been criticized for continuing a form of registration of publications; failure to register would be punishable with a sentence of six months in jail and a fine equivalent to about US$11,600. The proposed law also would prohibit publication of “material that could ‘disturb the rule of law,’ ‘incite unrest,’ or [that] ‘violates the constitution and other existing laws’.” (Id.) Some have pointed out that the new legislation would permit the government to control content and severely punish journalists that do not comply. Among the groups expressing concern over the bill is the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, which issued a statement on March 1 describing the draft as threatening “to reverse fragile press freedom gains recently achieved under President Thein Sein’s democratic reform program.” (Htet, supra.)

Criticism of the Consultation Process

In addition, there was criticism over the process by which the bill was sent to the legislature, as media groups had expected to be consulted but were not. Kyi Myint, an opposition Member of the Lower House of Parliament, noted that the bill will be reviewed in detail in committee. “We know that all the members of the media do not agree with this bill and object to it,” he stated, and “[t]his will be included in the considerations of the respective [parliamentary] committees.” (Id.) Phyo Min Thein, another Lower House Member, suggested that media representatives write to members of the legislature to express their views on the shortcomings of the draft law. (Id.)

Expectations of media consultation on the proposed law had been raised in September 2012. In August of that year, a joint government/media Myanmar Press Council was formed, and the 30-member group had begun drafting a media law of its own. (Id.) The idea that there would be public review and discussion of the proposed legislation, either with the Council or with media representatives in general, was given support when the government announced within a month after the Council was established that any draft would be published for consultation with media groups. (Burma: Minister Promises to Open Media Law to Consultation, and Respect International Standards, ARTICLE 19 [a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting freedom of expression] (Sept. 11, 2012).)

Government Response to Criticisms

In response to the objections to the bill, Ye Tint, the Director General of Information and Public Relations for Burma’s Ministry of Information, in a March 4, 2013, statement, defended the proposed legislation. He said that the bill had “no restrictions on press freedom,” and added, “[o]ther countries also have laws like this to control risks to state security or to the unity of the state, or [to control publication of] pornographic material.” (Htet, supra.) Ye Tint added that while “positive criticism” of the Constitution would be permitted, no one would be allowed to “write against any matter stated in the Constitution” he did not clarify what would constitute “positive criticism.” (Id.)