Friday, September 22, 2017

Concerns over national press council role ahead of June 30

Yangon residents read a newspaper on April 2. AFPYangon residents read a newspaper on April 2. AFP

Decades of pre-publication censorship of news journals is set to end from next month, the Ministry of Information announced last week.

From June 30, news journals will no longer be required to submit all content to the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD) before publication, director U Myo Myint Maung said on May 15. Content will instead be monitored by a National Press Council, a body whose composition and responsibilities remain largely unclear.

The formation of the press council is included in the Printers and Publishers Law that has been drafted by the Ministry of Information. While the draft law has not yet been submitted to parliament for approval, the ministry said last week that the council would be formed before the law is promulgated so that news publications can transition to self-censorship as soon as possible.

U Myo Myint Maung was speaking at a press conference held to announce that all books, except for the politics and religion genres, would no longer be subject to pre-censorship, effective immediately.

Journalists and editors have cautiously welcomed the change but said much will depend on whether the council is truly independent of the government.

Ko Zaw Thet Htwe, leader of the recently formed Myanmar Journalists Union, said the move did not necessarily represent greater freedom for publications.

“We can’t say it is press freedom because some responsibilities of PSRD are simply taken over by the National Press Council. Also the Printing and Publishing Law that will be submitted [to the hluttaw] in July but some sections [are] based on the 1962 Printers and Publishers Law,” Ko Zaw Thet Htwe told The Myanmar Times last week.

He said he would welcome the formation of the National Press Council if its members were selected by a popular vote.

“We are not sure who will organise that council yet and we hope it will comprise those selected by the public. We need to watch whether it is just members chosen by the government,” he said.

He also said that the restrictions on publications after June 30, along with the punishments for infractions, needed to be “fair”.

“If censorship laws are suspended completely then we will have to take responsibility for the contents of our publications as per the constitution. If we make a mistake or break the law, we will face the consequences but it needs to be fair. If not, it will hinder freedom of expression.”

U Myo Myint Maung from PSRD said the changes were in line with the 2008 constitution, which grants all citizens the right to speak out, write and publish their thoughts and beliefs freely. He reinforced that the new freedoms would come with added responsibility.

Deputy director general U Tint Swe said the ministry had been planning to relax censorship since 2008.

“Now we are releasing all novels except politics and religion [from pre-censorship]. And for political and news journals, we plan to organise a press council that matches with the 2008 constitution before finishing our print [media] law. But all journals will be released on June 30,” U Tint Swe said.

To accompany last week’s relaxation, the ministry released guidelines for book publishers that warn them not to publish material “against the fundamental laws”, that reveals state secrets, is obscene, insults other religions, or stimulates crises or rumours.

“If they break our rules, the main person responsible will be the publisher because all citizens have the right to write what they believe and think but not necessarily to distribute it,” U Tint Swe said.

The relaxation is the division’s fourth since June 10, 2011 when it allowed lifestyle, health, children’s, technology and sports publications to bypass the censorship board. In December, business, crime and legal publications were released, while in March educational publications no longer had to submit content for pre-publication censorship.

Journalist Maung Wuntha said he believed the relaxation of censorship would lead to more competition in the media industry and so establishing a workable code of ethics would be one of the press council’s most important tasks.

He said that journalism ethics and standards should not be allowed to fall by the wayside in the quest to get news first or to make content more sensational.

“Although now there is some big news that urgently needs to be published in the papers, we need to submit all [of it] to PSB and wait for permission. When we get more freedom, the public will know all the news immediately but we need to make sure the news can be trusted,” he said.

“There are a lot of rules for reporters to follow. For example, if a child is involved in a crime, the reporter can’t name the child or put their photo in the paper.”

He said the National Press Council must have members who can effectively solve disputes that arise between journalists and the government, the public and business interests.

“The leaders of the press council will have to talk with journalists and draw up a journalism code of ethics. After that they will need to ensure all journalists obey those ethics.

“But if the members of the council just work according to the government’s orders or misuse their authority, no one will have any faith in them.”