In the first quarter of this year, Myanmar’s parliament announced the adoption of the country’s first law that brings new media freedom into the country. However, the Media Bill and the Printers and Publishers Regulation Bill,which were also passed earlier this year, still lay the power to the government for withholding or revoking publishing licences unilaterally.
The two bills have been a matter of debate as the passing has been delayed due to the long legislative review process as well as the amendments made by the lower and upper houses of parliament. The two bills concerning this sensitive topic in Myanmar are controversial because they will legislate the print media in a country that has only recently dropped its strict censorship regime.
The first bill, namely the ‘Media Bill’ is intended to outline the rights and obligations of the country’s media and the operations of media companies. It was drafted by the government-appointed Myanmar Press Council (MPC), which advocates self-censorship and comprises mostly working journalists. The second bill, the so-called ‘Printers and Publishers Regulation Bill’ was drafted by the Ministry of Information and requires all media companies to register with the government. Furthermore, the bills ban publications with insulting context regarding religion, displaying nudity, undermining the “rule of law” or harming ethnic unity.
Although in July last year, the Printers and Publishers Registration Bill was passed by the Lower House, it was amended by the Upper House and was finally passed by the Union Parliament in March 2014. Due to the opening of the country, and the importance of international relations to Myanmar, consideration towards the bill have been made that such legislation is also needed to be reviewed in accordance with international standards. Further, discussions on the draft were held between the Bill Committee’s members, experts from the Information Ministry and officials from the Attorney General’s Office.
Against protests by journalists for a Press Law that ensures the freedom of expression for journalists, the final draft remains the power of the government to stop outlets from publishing. However, the punishments for publishers and journalists not in compliance with the law have been reduced from jail terms to fines.
Both bills had to go through a long review process and amendments before getting the final approval and resulted in two-minded reaction in the end. By drafting the two bills it was intended to express optimism of taking steps towards the protection of media freedoms, while safeguarding the interests of the rapidly reforming nation. While the Media Bill was drafted by the MPC, the Printers and Publishers Registration Bill was drafted to the exclusion of any journalist group.
Although Myanmar’s President Thein Sein took measures such as shutting down Myanmar’s censorship board and granting private daily newspapers the right to publish for the first time in 50 years it seems like a few more steps have to be taken to ensure the gains for freedom of media and to implement laws to protect this freedom. Moreover, the country is in need of further laws for the media, including regulations for broadcasting, film, and the use of libraries. Furthermore there are also concerns from international sides that claim lacking compliance of the 2014 passed Media Law with international standards on freedom of expression and media freedom. Although the Media Law introduced some guarantees for media freedom, such as the prohibition of censorship and the recognition of specific rights for journalists and positive attempts in the right direction have been made, the government should be encouraged to build upon the positive elements of the law. International groups also support the step to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) as well as reforming the current Media Law in order to ensure its compliance with international standards on freedom of expression.
Foreign media companies seem to be more and more interested in the media landscape of Myanmar. A current example for the growing interest of foreign media enterprises is the Austrian company META Communication International GmbH that works in close partnership with local media to extend its media services for its international clients by gaining a foothold in Myanmar. This shows also the need for the creation of a legal basis for media freedom and freedom of expression for local and foreign media companies that should also meet international standards.
Strohal Legal Group (SLG) is a law firm offering highly personalised services specialising in international and cross border business. SLG enjoys a well-established reputation across Europe, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. In Myanmar, SLG provides services under the name U Min Sein & Strohal Associates Law Firm.
The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Myanmar Business Today’s editorial opinion.