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NEWS UPDATES Asean Affairs   24 June 2013  

Myanmar’s Press Freedom Reforms: Why Slower could be Better

Myanmar’s Union Parliament is poised to vote on at least two major press freedom bills before the end of June 2013. Some components of the draft laws are welcomed, but the drafting process is not. Parliament should seize the opportunity this month to deliberately and inclusively assess these bills, even if it results in a slower reform process.

The first major piece of legislation to be introduced in Parliament in the coming weeks is the Printing and Publishing Enterprise Law. The original draft, written by the Ministry of Information (MOI), maintained the censorship mechanisms of its harsh 1962 predecessor. Domestic and international media groups strongly condemned the original version of the bill  when MOI first introduced it to Parliament in March. The criticism prompted MOI to revise the bill in consultation with the Myanmar Press Council, a 28-member body of journalists and 10 government-appointed representatives.

Parliament will also vote this month on a draft Public Service Media (PSM) bill, which MOI also drafted without public input. While the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, and other international groups welcome the decision to transform Myanmar’s state media into a public service outlet, editors and journalists in the country have raised concerns about the bill’s implications for editorial independence. According to the bill, 70 percent of PSM funding will come from public funds and the remainder from commercial activities. It also calls for the creation of a 15-member administrative team appointed by the president and Parliament to oversee the transformation process. As elected officials, Myanmar lawmakers should take these concerns seriously.

A third bill, the Press Law Bill, which the Myanmar Press Council introduced in February to outline industry standards and safeguard journalistic freedom, still waits in the wings. While the legislation does roll back some troublesome regulations, it still bans criticism of state institutions and falls below international press freedom standards. Like many of Myanmar’s reforms, these three press freedom bills represent President Thein Sein’s desire to do a lot very quickly. The repeated drafting of press laws without transparent consultation with civil society or media groups in order to move them quickly through the legislative pipeline is disconcerting. The need for comprehensive reforms cannot come at the expense of legislative quality. Myanmar risks ‘ticking the boxes’ rather than creating a genuinely free and professional media landscape.

With the Printing and Publishing Enterprise  and PSM bills slated for votes soon, the Union Parliament has an opportunity to get it right. Lawmakers should consult with the country’s editors, journalists, and other media personnel to ensure press legislation is inclusive, progressive, and meets international standards. Debate and discussion will inevitably delay, or even suspend, their passage, but will help establish norms of transparency and inclusiveness. In creating a legal environment that enshrines press freedom and a legislative process that honors the democratic process, slower may be better for Myanmar.

Courtesy: This post originally appeared on the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington D.C. cogitASIA blog

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