Media NGO calls for Myanmar reform

The Daily Eleven is one of a new breed of independent newspapers operating from within the country. Source: Asean Economist

The US-based press-freedom organisation, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), has sent an open letter to Myanmar’s new president, Htin Kyaw, calling for media laws to be relaxed and more action to remove oppressive legislation dating back to the colonial and military administrations.

Joel Simon, CPJ executive director, said: “We urge you to prioritise legal reforms that guarantee and protect press freedom, including measures that ensure reporters can practise their profession independently without fear of reprisal.

“We were heartened by your April 17 decision to grant a presidential pardon to five journalists with the Unity newspaper who were serving sentences of seven years in prison with hard labour for their investigative reporting on a military installation,” he wrote.

In the letter, which was also sent to State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the CPJ called for the axing of the colonial-era 1923 Official Secrets Act which prohibits activity “prejudicial to the safety or interests of the state”.

The NGO rather ambitiously called for the introduction of a freedom of information law to promote transparency throughout the government and even the military.

“Their release marked the first time since CPJ started to compile statistics on jailed journalists worldwide that no reporters have been held behind bars in Myanmar.

“We were encouraged by your government’s move this month to abolish the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, a law that successive military regimes used to threaten journalists with imprisonment for reporting news deemed as detrimental to national stability.”

Simon called for the scrapping of the 2014 Printers and Publishers Registration Law, which can be used to withhold media licences and quash reports deemed damaging to “national security, rule of law or community peace and tranquillity” or which could insult religion.

The 2004 Electronic Transactions Law was also criticised for controlling the use and monitoring of the internet, particularly social media, with 15-year prison sentences. The 2013 Telecommunications Law threatens three-year jail terms for any “defamation” or “disturbances” spread online.

“Past military regimes also relied on the 1908 Unlawful Associations Act to restrict reporters’ ability to report on conflicts in Myanmar. The law empowers your office to criminalise contact with any group deemed as a threat to national security, a provision used previously to ban any contact with media groups operating in exile,” Simon said.

A free press was essential to establishing democracy, he concluded.

The UN cultural agency Unesco and the NGO International Media Support have also released a report into the media, coming to a similar conclusion.

The “Assessment of Media Development in Myanmar” said the country’s wider legal framework was outdated and had not kept pace with the rapid political and social changes occurring in the country.”