State-run media announced on Wednesday that President Thein Sein has signed two new media laws that were approved by Parliament earlier this month. The signing marks the official end of the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act, a draconian, junta-era media law.
Members of the Burmese media offered a mixed response, however. They said an era of extreme media repression had officially come to an end, but many expressed concern over restrictions that remain in place under the two new media laws.
“These laws still allow punishments with fines. These laws still lack the standard we want,” said Myint Kyaw, secretary of the Myanmar Journalist Network.
President Thein Sein’s reformist government has implemented sweeping political reforms since taking office in 2011, most visible among them a lifting of pre-publication censorship, the release of imprisoned journalists and other reforms that have resulted in greater media freedoms.
In the past year, Burmese media held heated discussions with the Ministry of Information about new media laws, with both sides putting forth differing proposals.
On March 4, the Press Law, drafted by the interim Myanmar Press Council, was accepted in Parliament after some amendments. But, to the surprise of journalists, MPs also decided to accept the Printers and Publishers Registration Law, proposed by the Information Ministry.
The latter law leaves gives the ministry the power to withhold or revoke publishing licenses unilaterally, while it contains vaguely defined bans on reporting that could “incite unrest”, “insult religion” and “violate the Constitution.” The previous military regime used to invoke similar types of concern to use blanket bans on critical reporting.
The Printers and Publishers Registration Law carries no prison term punishments and only stipulates paying a fine for violating the law, ranging from US$100 to $500.
Under the previous 1962 law, many journalists were punished to prison terms of up to seven years under broadly defined charges that included “disrespecting the State.”
The Press Law, drawn up by Burmese journalists, focused on issues such as enforcing journalistic ethics, copy and intellectual rights, self-regulation by the media and guarantees of access to government documents.
State-run media The New Light of Myanmar announced the president’s signing of the new laws with much fanfare on Wednesday morning, reporting that the Press Law meant that “investigative journalism and critical reporting [is now] backed by government,” while new laws also offered “protection of journalists from arbitrary arrest.”
The government mouthpiece made no mention of the more restrictive Printers and Publishers Registration Law.
Pe Myint, a consulting editor at the weekly journal People Age, said the new laws were the result of the decisions of parliamentarians who had decided to keep some restrictions on the media.
“We have debated about [media reforms] for long, but it now seems that Parliament also want control over the press,” he said. “We have to keep working to fulfill our demands, as it was not our or the Press Council’s ideas to have two separate media laws.”
Pe Myint added, “We will have to see the bylaws on how much we can freely publish.”
San Moon Aung, the publisher of “Ngardoe Sarpay,” a publishing house that in the past was often blocked from publishing critical books, said he rejected the fact that publishers remained subject to license approvals from the Information Ministry.
“This is a disadvantage of this new law,” he said, adding that it was nonetheless, a great relief that the 1962 media law was now cancelled.
“Even though we are able to publish some [critical books] since mid-2012, we had to worry about the existing 1962 law. Now we can publish more and more critical publications,” San Moon Aung said.