RANGOON — Speakers of both houses of Burma’s Parliament “generally agree” on the need to revise century-old sections of the country’s penal code that have been used to jail journalists, according to a leading member of the Interim Press Council.
Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann and Upper House Speaker Khin Aung Myint told press council members that they would consider the legal revisions during a meeting in Naypyidaw on Wednesday, one day before charges were dropped against dozens of journalists in Rangoon.
“The council proposed abolishing sections 499 and 500 of the penal code, which cover defamation but were taken by the British [colonial powers] 100 years ago. India does not include these sections in its penal code anymore; instead, they are part of civil law,” council member and veteran journalist Thiha Saw told The Irrawaddy, recounting the meeting.
“Someone can be jailed under the penal code but they only need to pay a fine under civil law. We asked whether it would be possible to make the change, as other countries have done. …Both parliamentary speakers generally agreed to do so.”
On Thursday, charges against about 50 journalists in Rangoon were dropped, according to a report by 7Day News, a Burmese-language news agency, which cited a police officer. The journalists had been accused of violating the Peaceful Assembly Act after a silent demonstration.
Thiha Saw said the parliamentary speakers also agreed to cooperate in holding a forum of media and government officials, likely in September. “The forum is to increase understanding between the four pillars—the legislative, administrative and judiciary bodies, along with the media, and to solve misunderstandings, if there are any,” Thiha Saw told The Irrawaddy.
He said council members and the parliamentary speakers spoke about the Public Service Media Bill as well. In particular, he said council members criticized the plan to include newspapers as public service media.
The Interim Press Council has finished drafting bylaws for its Media Law, which was approved by Parliament and signed by President Thein Sein in March. The bylaws will be sent to the Attorney General’s Office and must receive approval from the president, Thiha Saw said.
Council members met earlier this month with Thein Sein in Naypyidaw and with Information Minister Ye Htut in Rangoon. The president agreed to give the council greater rights to mediate over disputes involving the media. Both meetings were held at the request of the council, following the jailing of several journalists in recent months.