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The lower house of the Myanmar government has approved a controversial draft media law, with just slight changes from the original legislation that was retracted in February following pressure from press rights advocates.
The proposed “Printers and Publishers Registration Bill” has been widely criticized for its impediments to free speech and similarities to the original Draconian press law created by the government of notorious dictator Ne Win in 1962.
Despite consultation with journalists this time around, under the new legislation parties interested in producing and publishing newspapers and magazines must apply to the Ministry of Information for a license, with large fines possible for those who don’t comply.
Print press in the country has evolved dramatically over the past year, with daily newspaper licenses granted for the first time in five decades to 24 publications. Each of these fledgling outlets is now battling for their share of the local market, under the constraints of limited resources, untrained reporters and a completely underdeveloped circulation system.
Positive changes made to the new draft of the law include the deletion of a stipulation that allowed for a publication to be declared illegal for violating the licensing law, which had been vaguely defined. It will have to be passed by the upper house before it becomes law.
Under the country’s previous 1962 media law, prior to publication, all print media had to be approved by a censorship board that would excise anything they opposed (the system placed Myanmar 151st out of 179 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index in 2011-2012).
While the country’s infamous media censorship board was abolished in August of 2012, fear of having their license revoked has led many local editors to self-censor sensitive issues, such as the plight of the country’s stateless Muslim ethnic group, the Rohingya, and corruption.
The extent of Myanmar media reform came under fire recently when authorities banned a controversial Time magazine cover featuring extremist Buddhist monk Wirathu with the headline “The Face of Buddhist Terror.”
Censorship boards, while significantly relaxed under the new government, still exist for film and television in the country.
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