Myanmar: Press bill falls far short of international law and

would leave press open to abuse
27 Feb 2013
Despite promises of reform, a new press bill to be presented in parliament retains
a vagueness that will leave the print media open to abuse from the government
and other powerful actors.
The draft Press Law Bill (2013) says that the media should become “a fourth pillar” of
democracy “watching and guiding the other three”. The media will not however
become a fourth pillar under this draft because it undermines their role and overly
restricts their work.
Governments often abuse regulation of the press to restrict rather than protect the
right to freedom of expression and a free media. Journalists and the press should not
be subject under such press regulations to greater restrictions on their right to express
themselves compared to ordinary people.
As such, most advanced democracies have abolished any regulation of the press
except by general laws. Experiences from other newly democratising states in Eastern
Europe for example show that even young democracies do not need a press law.
The bill has both positive and negative aspects. On the positive side, it repeals
draconian laws and replaces them with provisions that proclaim human rights. On
the negative side it falls substantially below international freedom of expression
Problems in the Press Law Bill
1. Who is a journalist?
Even though the bill refers to the rights and duties of journalists, it is unclear who
would be protected under the rights described, and whether for example it includes
freelancers or stringers.
Recommendation: Protection should be provided to all journalists working in the
country and extended to media workers in general, such as editors, publishers,
photographers. A journalist should be defined broadly as anyone who is regularly
and professionally engaged in the collection and dissemination of information for the
public via any means of mass communication.
2. Reporting regulated by the state
The bill sets out the duties of journalists and aims to regulate issues such as reporting
on court cases, children and women, or on poor and disabled people. These duties
should not be imposed by the state, which might amount to an interference with
freedom of expression that is unnecessary in a democratic society
Recommendation: The press should be encouraged to self-regulate rather than have
rules imposed by the state. Journalists and press outlets should be free to adopt and
voluntarily follow professional standards of ethics.
3. Overbroad restrictions on content
International law has a clear and non-expandable list of acceptable restrictions to
freedom of expression. The restriction in the bill making sure that publications
“benefit national and public interest” and that prohibit “provocative expression,
“false propaganda” are not among such permissible restrictions..
Recommendation: Only those clear restrictions covered under Article 19(3) of the
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights should be listed in the bill.
4. Freedom of information is limited
The bill limits access to information held by government by excluding “matters of
public and national security” and “secret records”. International standards are clear
however that all information should be provided to journalists or members of the
public, unless the government department can show that they are hiding the
information to protect a legitimate aim as listed in law, the disclosure must threaten
to cause substantial harm to that aim, and the harm to the aim must be greater than
the public interest in having the information.
Recommendation: The bill should not exclude “matters of public and national
security” and “secret records” from being accessible, and the government should
create a right to information law.
5. Press Council is not independent
The bill preserves a statutory Press Council under the control of the president,
therefore placing control and penalties for the press in the hands of the government.
The president decides who will be on the council, and as there is no provision
covering funding or competence, will presumably decide what it will do, leaving it
wide open to abuse.
Recommendation: A press council should be created by the press itself through a
process of consultations with participation from all stakeholders. If such a council is
mandated by the state in statute, it should include a clear guarantee of independence
from government influence.
6. Press outlets require permission or licences
The bill violates international law by requiring press outlets to obtain permission or
licences in order to operate. A government that decides who can run a newspaper,
magazine or news website in effect controls the media.
Recommendation: No licencing or permissions should exist beyond general laws for
businesses such as tax.
7. Foreign publications are still subject to prior-censorship
The bill gives powers to a “respective ministry” to inspect and decide whether
imported foreign publications are “capable of threatening the national security and
public interest”. By its nature this amounts to prior censorship.
Recommendation: Only courts should have powers to order seizure of publications,
be they imported or produced in Burma.
Positive features in the Press Law Bill
A. It repeals draconian laws
The bill will repeal Myanmar’s infamously draconian Printers and Publishers
Registration Law (1962) which requires prior-censorship in all forms of media.
B. Journalists are empowered and protected
By proclaiming specific rights, the bill recognises the need for protection of
journalists and the press. As the draconian Printers and Publishers Registration Law
(1962) does not use the language of rights, it gives no opportunities for journalists
and the press to make claims in defence of their interests.
C. Right to freedom of expression proclaimed
Even though Myanmar sits alongside those countries such as North Korea that have
not ratified any of the international human rights treaties, the bill proclaims a
number of rights aiming at free expression; for example the right to information or
the right to express opinions and convictions. In compliance with international law
the bill sets out that these rights belong to everyone as opposed to journalists only.
D. Introduction of arbitration for disputes with the press
The bill creates an extrajudicial dispute resolution mechanism by empowering the
Press Council to examine in the first instance complaints against the press.
Arbitration outside courts provides speediness and reduces cost in many states
worldwide, therefore strengthening media freedom. By requiring victims of press
violations to go to the Press Council before a court, the bill protects journalists and
the press from expensive and intimidating court proceedings.
E. Introduction of the protection of journalists’ sources and the right to
The bill strengthens the status of journalists by recognising the right to accreditation
and the right not to reveal journalists’ sources, as is the norm in most states
Next steps
ARTICLE 19 will be carrying out a detailed legal analysis of the draft bill, including
specific recommendations that we will put to the government of Myanmar and civil
society in the country.
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27 Feb 2013
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