Myanmar: Letter to Minister Aung Kyi on publishing bill

Dear Minister Aung Kyi

We write to you today in response to recent changes in the Printing and Publishing Enterprise Bill as passed by the Lower House of Parliament (“the current draft”).

We welcome several changes secured by the Lower House in the current draft, including:

  • The newly included reference to freedom of expression and freedom of information in article 27
  • The removal of imprisonment as a punishment from articles 21, 22, 23, 24
  • The removal of the prohibition on publishing content that contravenes other legislation.

However, we remain deeply concerned about the current draft in regards to its conformity with international standards. Our five major concerns were outlined in detail in a report published on 25 March 2013, which is available at:

While some of those concerns have altered according to the recent changes in the current draft, they all remain valid. In particular:

Issue 1: No recognition of the right to freedom of expression

Although the current draft now references freedom of expression and information, it limits those rights in such a vague manner that makes the reference largely meaningless.

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

Although government officials can no longer ban a publication, the Minister or their delegate still can. As such, 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, particularly ministers, so that the media can perform its vital role as a public watchdog.

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

The current draft retains the need for printers and publishers to obtain permission from the government in order to publish. 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.

Issue 4. Regulation of content is overbroad

Although the current draft has removed the prohibition on publishing content that contravenes other unlisted legislation, the remaining prohibitions remain overbroad. 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.

Issue 5. The punishment is extremely excessive

Although imprisonment has been removed from the current draft, excessive fines of over USD 10,000 remain. Such fines 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.

We urge you, as Minister responsible for the Bill, to encourage further substantial changes to ensure this Bill conforms to international standards, or to withdraw the Bill and instead put forward an improved version of the Press Council’s proposal. (See here for our recommendations on the Press Council’s proposal:

The world, and particularly the people of Myanmar, are watching, and without these changes, the government and the legislature will adopt a law that will undermine democracy before it has a chance to start.