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A new draft law intended to replace one of Burma’s most draconian publishing acts has been slammed for retaining a series of restrictive provisions, including a ban on printing material that “violates” the country’s military-backed constitution, and imposing prison sentences of up to six months.
The new law is set replace the notorious 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act, which was commonly used to silence dissent in Burma under the former military junta. The law required all publications to register with and submit copies to the censorship board – the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD) — which was formally abolished in January.
However, the new draft legislation also prohibits the publication of various topics, including material that could “disturb the rule of law”, “incite unrest”, or “violates the constitution and other existing laws”. It also requires all publications to register with the government or risk spending six months in jail and paying a 10 million kyat (US$11,621) fine.
Analysts say the new law would mandate a similar function to the PSRD through the creation of a “registration official” who is in charge of issuing licences and identifying any publications containing “unlawful” material.
The Eleven Media Group issued a statement on Wednesday strongly denouncing the draft Printing and Publishing Enterprise law, which was prepared by the Ministry of Information, as a “deceitful” attempt to cripple media freedom in Burma.
“[It] is an attempt to revive the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Law and its specifications mean to control the news media through printing and publication [regulations],” warned the media group.
Eleven Media added they will only accept the new media law that is currently being drafted by Burma’s interim press council, formed in September last year. A spokesperson for the Myanmar Journalists Association, which is represented on the press council, accused the government of manipulating the press.
“Currently, the media law is being drafted and I see that the [new Printing and Publishing Enterprise Law] is intended to compensate for the [restrictions] being lifted in the media law by regulating printing and publication [procedures],” Pho Naing Linn from the Myanmar Journalists Association told DVB.
Since coming into power in March 2011, reformist President Thein Sein has led a series of democratic reforms in the country, including easing media restrictions and freeing political prisoners.
However, many arbitrary laws remain in place and continue to be used to silence critics. Broadcasting rights remain exclusively in the hands of the state, which precludes exiled media groups, including DVB, from formally returning to Burma.
A growing number of peaceful protestors have also been arrested and sentenced to jail for “inciting unrest”, while others have been prosecuted under Burma’s criminal defamation laws.
Five political leaders from the Mandalay-based People’s Democracy Party have been held in detention in Kachin state since October last year for printing corruption allegations against the state government in their bi-monthly newsletter.
The latest string of restrictions, especially regarding the controversial 2008 constitution, which guarantees the military 25 percent of seats in parliament, could threaten the rights of ethnic minorities and pro-democracy campaigners.
But a government spokesperson denied allegations that they were attempting to censor the media. “There is no intention to manipulate [media freedom],” Ye Tint from the Ministry of Information said, before admitting that prison sentences could be enforced.
“There are no disagreeable specifications in the law like the supplements to the 1962 law. And we are mostly specifying fines as punishments – only if one can’t pay the fine, one will have to serve a brief prison term. This law is not as harsh as the 1962 law.”
A high court attorney from Rangoon agreed that the new law was an improvement from the draconian 1962 legislation, but argued that it still fell short of legal standards – even Burma’s own constitution.
“On the dark side, the law diverges from allowing full media freedoms specified in the 2008 constitution,” said Ko Ni. “The constitution doesn’t require printers and publishers to obtain licences.”
“But according to this law, a license is required and publishing/printing without a license can be punishable with up to 10 million kyat (US$11,621) fine or a [six-month] prison term. This makes it questionable whether the law is in conformity with the 2008 constitution.”
-Additional reporting provided by Shwe Aung and Ko Htwe