Statement

Myanmar: Ministry's draft press bill would restore prior censorship and full government control

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ARTICLE 19

25 Mar 2013

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A draft press bill put before parliament by the Minister of Information and Communications should be withdrawn or rejected when it has its first reading in June as it would be a major step backwards for freedom of expression and freedom of the media, restoring prior censorship and full governmental control over the press.

The draft Printing and Publishing Enterprise Law Bill has been put before parliament by the Minister of Information and Communications and is the second problematic bill to be proposed in the past month covering the press in the country.

The first parallel proposal, the ‘Press Law Bill’ was published by the newly established Press Council at the president’s request. ARTICLE 19 analysed the first proposal and called for it to be changed, finding it to be “falling short of international law and open to abuse” [ထုတ္ျပန္ေၾကျငာခ်က္].

It is unclear why the Ministry has sent a second parallel bill to parliament. The Press Council has written to the President complaining that the Ministry’s bill “contradicts and deters the media bill being drafted by the council”. What is clear, however, is that the Ministry’s bill would give the government direct control over the media if it was adopted.

As such, the Ministry’s bill should be withdrawn or rejected.

If Myanmar is genuine in its commitment to democratising and to addressing corruption, the media must be free to investigate, to report and to criticise. Most democracies recognise that the media can only be free if it is self-regulating and truly independent from government. Otherwise media regulation can, and often will, be used by those in power to censor and suppress. 

What is the difference between the Ministry’s bill and the Press Council’s bill?

Both bills fall short of international law and are open to abuse. However, there are differences:

  • The Press Council’s bill regulates the journalistic profession. The Ministry’s bill regulates the businesses that print and publish
  • The Press Council’s bill has some positive features such as the empowerment of journalists by recognising certain legal rights. The Ministry’s bill has almost no positive features
  • The Press Council’s bill recognises the right to freedom of expression. The Ministry’s bill ignores 65 years of human rights obligations with no recognition that regulating printers and publishers infringes on the right to freedom of expression and media freedom
  • Both bills give the government unjustified and undemocratic power over the press and should be rejected by parliament.

Reasons why the Ministry’s bill should be withdrawn or rejected

1. No recognition of the right to freedom of expression

The Ministry’s bill does not recognise that by regulating printers and publishers, it is directly regulating freedom of the media and the right to freedom of expression, a right that is protected under the country’s constitution and international human rights law.

2. The government would have strict supervision and control of the press

The Ministry’s bill has such broad definitions of who it applies to that many people and businesses could find themselves victim to it. For example, politicians and political parties, bloggers, and social media users could all be regarded as “publishers” when creating leaflets or articles for instance, and owners of photocopiers could fall under the definition of “printing houses”.

Similarly, the definition of “publication” is so broad and oblivious of their nature, distribution or purpose that trivial publications such as posters or emails would be covered and subject to this bill.

The bill clearly places “publishers,” “printing houses” and “publications” under the “authorisation” and “control” of the government. In a democracy the press, publishers and printers should be completely independent of government control so that the media can perform its vital role as a public watchdog.

3. Requiring permission to publish is a form of prior censorship

The Ministry’s bill would require all printers and publishers to get a “certificate of registration” from the government in order to work. This is a system of licensing which is viewed with deep suspicion in international law. Although the government has scrapped the Censorship Board, the requirement for licences will enable the government to refuse applications from opposition or critical voices, which in effect is a system of prior-censorship.

Special mandates for the United Nations and other global bodies have stated that registration is unnecessary, easy to abuse, particularly problematical and should be avoided at all costs. 

4. Regulation of content is overbroad

The Ministry’s bill prohibits types of speech in a vague and overbroad way, such as speech that is “against” the constitution or other laws.

International law requires restrictions on freedom of expression to be clearly defined, limited to legitimate aims (rights or reputations of others, protection of national security or of public order or of public health or morals) and be imposed only to the extent necessary for the achievement of the aim. Unclear, unnecessary and disproportionate restrictions lead to abuse and censorship. The list of prohibitions in this bill could be used to stifle a wide range of public debate, such as for example people criticising old authoritarian laws or leading non-violent protests.

Although the country is confronting issues relating to ethnic and gender discrimination and violence, many of these issues are due to years of censorship and domination. Speaking about such issues is the only way to solve them. Censoring public debate simply forces tension underground and into explosive outbursts.

5. The punishment is extremely excessive

The Ministry’s bill includes large fines and imprisonment that would disproportionately punish those expressing themselves. It would lead to the creation of a press that will regularly self-censor, evading issues relating to corruption, democracy, legal change, discrimination, criminality, violence and others.

A note on etymology:

ARTICLE 19 began referring to the country as “Myanmar” on 20 September 2012 in recognition of the dismantling of the systems of prior-censorship and the inchoate opening up of the country.

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