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UNITED NATIONS, Aug 27 2013 (IPS) - One year after the government officially struck down laws obstructing free press in Myanmar, a parliamentary bill could allow previous censorship practices to re-surge.
When Thein Sein’s Union Solidarity and Development party government ended the last of the censorship laws in August last year, many hailed a new era of free expression and an end to the pressures placed on journalists over the previous half century.
Still, many journalists are concerned by the state of media reform in the country. Currently, a publishing bill that critics say gives the Ministry of Information (MOI) overly broad powers to issue and revoke publication licenses has been passed by the lower house of parliament and is set for consideration by the upper house.
Myint Kyaw is secretary for the Myanmar Journalist Network (MJN), which has been protesting the proposed bill, known as the Printing and Publishing Enterprise Bill. He told IPS that the MJN’s main criticism of the bill was in its conception of a printer and publisher registry system, which would essentially allow a ministry-appointed registrar to issue or deny publication licences and thus leave control over these licences in the hands of the government.
This situation is reminiscent of when the ministry used to control journalists and editors through the threat of license revocation, Myint Kyaw described. Such a possibility, combined with the threat of imprisonment and aggression, would lead to self-censorship, particularly when speaking critically of the military or when investigating corruption, notably that of former dictators and their family businesses.
Myint Kyaw also spoke of the need for a law guaranteeing access to information and ensuring safety for journalists in conflict areas. Earlier in August, MJN also collected thousands of signatures from around Yangon, the country’s former capital city, for a petition that demonstrated the public’s discontent with the state of media reform.
The current parliamentary bill comes at a time when many human rights groups remain critical of Myanmar’s attitude towards the media. In June, the government banned Time magazine after it featured a piece on the radical Buddhist 969 movement.
“It’s a disgraceful decision to ban the issue and indicates recidivism in official censorship in Burma [also known as Myanmar],” David Mathieson, a senior Asia researcher with Human Rights Watch, told IPS.
Benjamin Ismaïl, head of Reporters Without Borders’ Asia-Pacific desk, expressed a similar viewpoint. “The reflex of censoring news has not disappeared, but this is not a surprise since the government is composed in majority by the same persons who were already in power before 2011.”
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), however, did not denounce this case of censorship, telling IPS that the organisation aims to help develop an independent media, but that “[we] usually confine our advocacy to issues around the protection of journalists.”
Myanmar’s Interim Press Council, which is a body appointed by the government, has submitted its own, separate press bill to parliament. However, 17 of the recommendations in the bill have been contested by the Ministry of Information.
Despite possessing the constitutional right to a free press, in practice the media in Myanmar were tightly controlled by the establishment, from Ne Win’s coup of 1962 until August 2012. Censorship reached such levels in those fifty years that many publications were not able to effectively report from inside the country and were forced to relocate outside its borders.
One such organisation is Democratic Voice of Burma, which was set up in Norway in 1992. Its chief editor, Aye Chan Naing, told IPS that DVB was established “to counter one-sided propaganda by the Burmese military government.”
“All publications, private journals and magazines, arts, music, films and TV programmes were heavily censored by the government,” he said. “We were to counter them by airing unbiased and independent news programmes.”
“We could not do our job independently without getting arrested,” Aye Chan added. “There are a lot of difficulties [in reporting on] a country where our journalists can’t be present or work as undercover reporters. As in any closed country, it is hard to verify what is fact and what is rumour while the government refuses to answer any kind of questions or verification.”
Seventeen of DVB’s reporters were put in prison from 2007 to early 2012 for their work for DVB, Aye Chan said, although DVB has made moves to return to Myanmar since the opening up of the media. The organisation has an official office there now and has registered as a media production house.
Many media organisations and their employees are hoping for a positive resolution to the argument over media reform in the country – ideally, a law that would guarantee both protection for journalists and the ability to report without fear of retaliation by the authorities.
“Now that the government has removed the censorship board and allowed our journalists to work freely and independently…we decided to move back to Burma,” Aye Chan said. “As a media organisation, we need to be on the ground where we are reporting and get the firsthand news.”
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