Burma’s Parliament on Tuesday formally approved two laws to govern the country’s media, which lawmakers said would extend press freedom despite leaving media licensing in the hands of the Ministry of Information (MoI).
The journalist-drafted Press Law and the ministry’s own Printer’s and Publishers Registration Bill—both submitted the Parliament a year ago—will both now become law within the next two weeks.
The easing of restrictions on publications and the scrapping of the country’s notorious censorship board in 2012 have been among the most visible examples of reforms undertaken by the quasi-civilian government of President Thein Sein, which took power in March 2011. But media freedom advocates have warned that recent moves by the government threaten those gains, which they say must be enshrined in law.
The state-owned New Light of Myanmar said that the Union Parliament approved both laws Tuesday, but noted that the laws had “raised disputes” between the Upper and Lower Houses. Parliament delayed passing the publishing law in January to take more time to discuss it.
But it is thought that the publishing law still gives the Ministry of Information the power to withhold or revoke publishing licenses unilaterally. Opponents say this clause leaves the government still in ultimate control over what information is published in Burma.
But Thein Nyunt, a Lower House lawmaker from the New National Democracy Party, told The Irrawaddy that the new laws were an improvement on previous restrictive legislation. “Both laws reflect the democratic principle, which is to enhance the freedom of the press,” he said.
He stressed that the Printers and Publishers Registration Law removed the legal threat of imprisonment from journalists, and said media could now get help from the courts if the Ministry of Information denies them a license to publish. “Journalists or publishers now can seek justice from the court if they are forced to quit, unlike in the past,” he said.
Thein Nyunt, who submitted the Press Law to Parliament on behalf of Burma’s Interim Press Council last year, said that although changes had been made to the draft, its “essence” had been preserved.
Zaw Thet Htwe, a member of the Interim Press Council, said the ministry-drafted law—which was submitted without consultation at the same time as the council’s draft—was intended to keep government in control of the media.
“The MoI still has power to withdraw the publication licenses,” he said, adding that the ministry’s actions meant there were now, unnecessarily, two “parallel” laws on the press.
“MoI drafted this bill to control the media, not because they care about [press freedom],” he added.
However, he said, lawmakers had accepted the demand that “The press council must be the sole and independent organization for journalists and the members of the council are to be recognized as public servants.”
He said the Interim Press Council had worked with lawmakers and the Ministry of Information to reach compromises on the law.
“We had negotiations on some sections, and the Parliament approved about 70 percent of our demands [in Press Law],” Zaw Thet Htwe, he said, adding that the Lower House appeared to be in favor of the council’s recommendations, but the Upper House has sought to block measures aimed at freeing up the media.