Myanmar’s transformation has shocked the world. This transition coming from one of the world’s most repressive and closed countries has garnered attention and support from Western governments and democracy advocates worldwide. The handing over of power to a quasi-civilian government, a series of social, political and economic reforms as well as the end of prior censorship and the release of political prisoners signaled to the world that the country was indeed changing its tone and making measured efforts towards a liberalized society, economy and government. One of the metrics that has garnered the most commendation by international parties was the loosening of the restrictions and censorship requirements in the news media.
For decades, Myanmar was seen as having some of the most authoritarian and brutal restrictions on the freedom of the press. The Ministry of Information (MoI) largely regulated the media through the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD) and suppressive legal framework (Ismail 5). For years, MOI was seen as the surveillance arm of an authoritarian regime that saw a closely monitored flow of information and resolutely censored media as the key to identify, mitigate and subsequently eliminate any fomenting dissent from the embattled opposition and ethnic rebel groups.
In recent months, the strides take by HE U Thein Sein to move the media to a more public-service model have been subject to real questions of legitimacy as the MoI seems reluctant to abandon its role as regulator. Although censorship is over, the influence of the governing Press Council is questionable as the MoI still desires to retain power in order to maintain some semblance of supervisory control over the media.
On August 20, 2012 the government officially announced the end of prior censorship signaling the end of a practice that lasted almost a half century (Ismail 8). Despite this landmark announcement, many of the legal statutes that governed the press and media distribution in the country remain in place. For years the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division oversaw the composition and distribution of media in the private sector, however after a presidential order in May 2012, the Press Council was conceived to form a tribunal of both government and civil society voices to direct and oversee the development of the media landscape in Myanmar (Ismail 14). The council’s 20 member body would consist of 75% government appointed delegates largely overpowering the voice of the various journalism associations enlisted to ‘help’ with the law (Ismail 14).
This decision came under extreme scrutiny as the Press Council was to be under the PSRD with the mandate to “ensure that the media did not threaten the interests of the people, the state and Burma’s sovereignty” (14). This vague and imprecise language has become common practice in the evolution of the media of Myanmar post-censorship. The head of the Associated Press in Myanmar, Daw Aye Aye Win stated that “the end of prior censorship was inevitable, but the government panicked and tried to turn the Press Council into a replacement for the PSRD” (14).
The government reacted quickly to the public outcry by inviting the private sector media organizations to compose the Press Council’s regulatory framework. However in doing this the government still retained the final drafting authority and the secretly composed a council consisting of 20 members. These efforts were once again rejected by civil society as the change that had been repeatedly advocated and propelled by the regime was only skin deep and intended to generate support instead of exhibiting real institutional change (14).
Directly after this effort was rebuked by the journalists, a division of the PSRD disseminated a list of 16 guidelines to the private sector media and information outlets. According to PSRD Director U Myo Myint Aung, these are a “code of conduct” for the media, as determined by the weakening censorship Division. Some of these guidelines include such vague and ambiguous wording as “[d]o not write about or comment on the government in a negative way” or “[d]o not write about corruption…” Local journalists saw these guidelines as a restrained device to maintain control of the media (18). Finally on September 17th, 2012 a new Press Council was formed consisting of 2/3rds private sector representatives. This council was to be replaced by an elected council after one year and formally rejected government funding in order to preserve its autonomy (14).
Even with an autonomous Council, the growing-pains were significant. While engaging civil society, international organizations and the press laws of India, Indonesia and Austria; the MPC was initially criticized for the lengthy process. However out of this deliberation and dialogue a number of drafts were completed: the first receiving disapproval because of its “restrictive rules on content that will encourage pre-censorship,” the second providing more comprehensive endorsements for “freedom of expression… the abolition of defamation, the increased use of mediation (Chapter IV) to settle disputes,… a limit on criminal penalties… and the establishment of a new right to information (Chapter III)” (Harris 2013).
While these constructive steps towards liberalized media pluralism were being taken, the MoI secretly composed and published a draft of a Printing and Publishing Enterprise Law which would render all the development made by the MPC’s Press Law useless as MoI would retain the right to license newspapers, websites and foreign news sources as it sees fit (Harris 2013). This law was rebuked with extreme prejudice and the coordinated response from civil society provoked the government to reevaluate the law, giving the MPC some time to submit a Press Law to the Hluttaw (Harris 2013). This took longer than expected and on July 4th, 2013 the Printing and Publishing Enterprise Law was approved by the Lower House of Parliament. The Printing & Publishing Law was seen as an update to the 1962 law with slightly more lenient punishments for infringement. The MPC reacted by threatening mass resignations if the Law was approved by the Lower House and the President (Harris 2013).
Unsurprisingly the MoI-published law exhibits the same sort of language that leaves enforcement open to a very expansive interpretation of violations and infringements. “The broadness of these clauses in particular the clause[s] on portraying obscenity… and publishing material that opposes the constitution… would… add to the uncertainty facing journalists reporting on public interest matters” (Harris 2013). The signaling from the Union government has led many to believe that while there have been moves to liberalize the media sector in Myanmar through the passage of progressive bodies, laws and regulations; these are being used as window-dressing in order to assuage the concerns of international stakeholders and western countries that have championed the liberalization process.
On March 4th, the Parliament “adopted the country’s first laws enshrining media freedom since reformist President U Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian administration came to power in 2011” (Lipes 2014). However “the publishing law still gives the Ministry of Information the power to withhold or revoke publishing licenses unilaterally.” While this has been seen as a step towards media freedom, U Zaw Thet Htwe of the Interim Press Council has expressed “‘The MoI still has power to withdraw the publication licenses,’… 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],’” (Nyein 2014).
This unclear process and opaque results indicate that the role of the media in the dissemination of information is still a very divisive issue to the government. These clandestine laws put forth by the union government demonstrate a desire to retain control over the media “with the clear intent [to by-pass] an established civil society… and to dictate the terms of the debate as the government used to.” (Harris 2013). The MoI needs to proactively look towards relinquishing control of the flow of information and creating an environment that is favorable to the development of a media that observes international standards and is not subjected to censorship or bodily harm as they seek to report the news. The government’s intent to continue its controlling practices poses a real threat to the development of a free and fair press that serves the public good of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar.
Harris, Mike. Burma: Freedom of Expression in Transition. Rep. Index on Censorship, 15 July 2013. Web. 26 May 2014.
Ismail, Benjamin. Burmese Media Spring. Rep. Reporters Without Borders, Dec. 2012. Web. 1 Sept. 2013. <en.rsf.org/IMG/pdf/rsf_rapport_birmanie-gb-bd_2_.pdf>.
Lipes, Joshua. “Myanmar Parliament Passes First Legislation Granting Media Freedom.” Radio Free Asia. N.p., 5 Mar. 2014. Web. 26 May 2014.
Nyein, Nyein. “Burma’s Parliament Approves ‘Parallel’ Media Laws.” The Irrawaddy. Irrawaddy Publishing Group, 5 Mar. 2014. Web. 26 May 2014.