Burma: Enshrining the spirit of the reform process on firmer grounds

staff image


02 Apr 2012



ARTICLE 19 welcomes Burma’s historic by-election on 1 April - reportedly won by Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy despite challenging conditions - and recommends several reforms to guarantee the right to freedom of expression.

ARTICLE 19 was invited in March by the Burmese Ministry of Information to speak on media legislation at the first ever media conference to be held in the country. The conference was  organised jointly with UNESCO and International Media Support (IMS) and held between 16-20 March 2012. While in Burma, ARTICLE 19 met with many of those leading the fight for freedom of expression including, political parties, media networks, unions, journalists, youth activists and human rights defenders.

“This first mission was a deeply moving moment in ARTICLE 19’s history :after years denouncing human rights violations in Burmar, including killings, imprisonment and house arrest, we went there at the official invitation of the authorities to attend a conference on media development. This was indeed a moment to celebrate” said Dr Agnès Callamard, Executive Director, ARTICLE 19.

The ARTICLE 19 mission went to Burma with the aim of taking stock of and assessing the steps taken towards democratic reform. This statement presents:

  • our findings
  • our concerns about what has not yet been done
  • our preliminary recommendations.

Steps towards democratic reform

It is undeniable that reform is in progress and that it would be difficult now to turn back the clock. Although the government of Burma retains some of the world’s most heavily restrictive laws, it is increasingly turning a blind eye to the people who are bravely risking so much to grasp at even the smallest opportunities to exercise their right to freedom of expression.

In the past 12 months, the Government has taken some positive steps, including:

  • The June 2011 reform, which relaxed the provisions of the 1962 Publications Act for a selection of journals and magazines not related to current affairs (that is, the health, children, technology and sports sector publications). As a result, these publications are no longer required to be submitted for advance approval.
  • The drafting of a new press law. The draft law is due to be put before parliament in the middle of 2012 and to be adopted before the end of the year.
  • Release of imprisoned journalists and a number of political prisonners.
  • The April by-election for about 5% of the total number of MPs in the National Assembly. Aung San Suu Kyi will run for the first time, for the National League for Democracy (NLD), after spending most of the last two decades under house arrest for her peaceful political activities. 

Key concerns

  • The lack of clarity over legal reforms. Although arrests of critics of the government seem to have decreased and groups of individuals are beginning to join together more openly, there remains no legal mandate to legitimise civil society. ARTICLE 19 heard testimony from several new groups and networks that are struggling to establish themselves. Although they feel they have more freedom to come together and have begun to establish limited offices, they cannot register their existence officially. They therefore risk being closed down or arrested at any moment. This causes them to self-censor and to curtail work, even when it has no particular political or critical element, for example, when raising awareness of health issues.  Repeated concerns were also expressed, from a range of sources, that people or companies close to the Army are taking advantage of the political or legal vaccumm to appropriate the airwaves.
  • The lack of engagement with key domestic stakeholders over new laws. The government remains steadfast in not including stakeholders in the development of new laws, for example, its new press law. The Ministry has published and discussed only the section titles with non-governmental parties, which includes the media. The development of the first draft of the new Press Law was far from transparent. The Ministry did commit to developing a second draft of the law, following the broad recommendations of ARTICLE 19 among others. However, it has refused to publish that draft too, claiming that it would undermine parliament’s review of the bill. It is unclear whether parliament, which consists of 85% USDP members, will simply approve the document or whether it will seek wider consultation.
  • Great uncertainty about older laws, which need to  be repealed. Since the 2010 elections, the government has failed to change laws restricting the right to freedom of expression. However, in practice it has ignored those who attempt to push the boundaries of what is permitted. With legal restrictions still in place, the government has created an environment of uncertainty in which people take risks, unsure of the repercussions. For example, one weekly journal printed a ‘last-minute’ article in March without prior submission to the censorship board. The story, about corruption within the Ministry of Mines, has reportedly led to the Minister concerned considering whether to sue for defamation.
  • Continuing censorship. ARTICLE 19 heard testimony that the Ministry of Information Censorship Board orders the removal of approximately 20-25% of articles submitted by those newspapers and magazines covering current affairs, We also heard testimony of cases where magazines covering topics unrelated to current affairs faced censorship post-publication.
  • Limited reforms are not trickling down. Political and human rights activists highlighted time and again the range of difficulties experienced outside Yangon. The reform has not trickled down to the lower levels of the administration in the provinces. The political campaign for the National Assembly particularly demonstrated this stafe of affairs, with NLD party members or supporters experiencing high levels of harrassment and threats.

Our recommendations

ARTICLE 19 recommends that the Government takes the following preliminary actions:

  • Release all remaining political prisonners.
  • Ratify the International Covernant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Doing this will give the reforms international and national legitimacy and provide assurance that this is a genuine process of reform.
  • Increase transparency. The text of draft laws or new policies must be made available to the people of Burma. Right now, the rumours regarding new media laws and the absence of transparency over their content work against the objectives of the process.
  • Repeal existing restrictive laws. The adoption of new laws is probably an effective and efficient approach to the reform agenda, given the myriad of older laws that are currently restricting freedom of expression. This  amounts to a maze of restrictions and a slowing down of the reform process.  It is vital that the old laws are repealed,otherwise they will create great legal uncertainty and  remain threatening.  It is particularly vital that laws that enshrine prior censorship be repealed.
  • Consider whether a new Press Law is needed. Most democracies have moved to abolish their press laws, regulating the print media through laws of general application. Indeed, the experience of transitioning democracies in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism shows that even young democracies with an immature free media do not need a press law. 
  • Initiate a new Broadcasting Law. This is an essential part of the reform process, which should be initiated as soon as possible. As a minimum, it should include the following:
    No State monopoly over broadcasting
    No prior censorship
    The co-existence of three kinds of broadcasting accessing the airwaves: public, private and community
    The establishment of a regulatory body, fully independent of political and economic interest. This body, should be established as a matter of priority and should be responsible for issuing broadcasting licences and ensuring observance of licence conditions.

ARTICLE 19 recommends that donors work closely with the Government to support and prioritise all meaningful efforts towards legal reforms and human rights protection, including protection of freedom of expression and media freedom, to enshrine the spirit of reform on firmer grounds.

Dr Callamard concludes: “People, governments and non-governmental organisations around the world are keen to see that Burma democratic reform is a success story.  No-one is interested in seeing it collapse, being sidetracked or shying away from its true mission. This means that support is on offer. The Government must take these opportunities and continue its important journey towards strengthening human rights protection and the rule of law in the country, and establishing an independent media.