edge review 12-18 September 2013

Photo: Displaced ex-residents of Michaungan ward in Yangon’s Thingangyun township protest the confiscation of their land in December 2013 (Alex Bookbinder).

New laws threaten civil society, media freedom in Myanmar

Despite the breakneck pace of reforms over the past two years, standing up for your rights is still a dangerous proposition in Myanmar. Naw Ohn Hla discovered this the hard way. A leading activist against the controversial, China-backed Letpadaung copper-mine project, she was the principal organiser of demonstrations commemorating the nine-month anniversary of a brutal crackdown last year that injured more than 70 protestors. Arrested on August 13, she was jailed for two years under section 505(b) of Myanmar’s 1957 penal code, a vaguely worded paragraph that criminalises acts that may lead to “offence[s] against the State or against the public tranquility.”

Section 354 of Myanmar’s 2008 constitution enshrines rights to free speech and assembly, but vaguely-worded passages in a number of laws – holdovers from the old government and new legislation alike – give the authorities broad leverage to suspend these rights.

Only a hardened cynic would argue that Myanmar hasn’t undergone positive changes over the past two years. A vibrant private press has re-emerged, and a reinvigorated civil society has begun to push for rights and accountability on a scale unimaginable during the dark days of direct military rule. But Myanmar is far from a true democracy, as ongoing crackdowns against civil society attest. New laws limiting press freedom and civil liberties are either already on the books or in the final stages of implementation, to the dismay of local activists and journalists.

“The constitution allows for people to do peaceful demonstration, but the conditions are that [demonstrations] cannot harm the country’s stability and peace,” said Bo Kyi, a former political prisoner and the head of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma, a Thailand-based pressure group that advocates for the release of all remaining political prisoners in Myanmar. “This means that they’re giving [rights] to us but we didn’t receive it.”

Naw Ohn Hla was also charged – but not convicted – under Section 18 of the Right to Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Act, enacted in December 2011, which stipulates a “maximum sentence of one year imprisonment or a maximum fine of thirty thousand kyat (US$31) or both” for violators. While the Assembly Act enshrines rights to protest that did not exist under the previous military regime, activists have routinely been charged under Section 18 in recent months, including the organizers of an August 27 demonstration in Yangon against Section 18 itself.

The Assembly Act requires demonstrators to apply for permission to protest, and to furnish the authorities with details of their plans. But Bo Kyi claims that activists are routinely denied permits. “Even though they requested to do a demonstration, they were denied, and they have no other ways [to protest],” he said. “So they had to protest [without permission], and they were detained.”

A draft bill on associations announced in July is expected to pass when the next session of parliament opens in the fall, according to Zayar Thaw, a Member of Parliament for the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD). Considered the first rapper to hit the mainstream in Myanmar, he was imprisoned for two years for politically sensitive lyrics in his music. Released in 2011, he was elected the following year in by-elections that also saw the NLD’s leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, become a parliamentarian herself.

A first draft of the Associations Law required that all civil society organisations register with the authorities, and threatened offenders with three years’ imprisonment. While a second draft proposed by the lower house of parliament amended the registration requirement to limit it to organizations working in certain sectors, and removed the threat of imprisonment under some circumstances, the draft is still vaguely worded and – as with the Assembly Law – leaves civil society vulnerable to government pressure and interference.

“From my point of view, we need a [new] association law, because the old association law was very rigid,” Zayar Thaw told The Edge Review. “But most of the MPs in parliament think that… laws must be prohibitive against the people. For our party and from our point of view, laws need to [allow] people to agitate and mobilise.”

Bo Kyi also recognises that a law that clearly defines the relationship between civil society and the state is valuable, but he, too, worries that in its current incarnation it will serve as a tool for repression. “Civil society groups are [friendly to] the government,” he claimed. “The government can get ground (level) information from civil society. But the government looks at civil society as the enemy of the state. The government should know which organization is working for what – not to oppress them, but for cooperation.”

Rewriting the rules for the media too

In the not-too-distant past, reading a newspaper or watching television news in Myanmar meant suffering through stultifying propaganda, or watching and listening to illegal broadcasts from abroad. Over the past year, however, countless private publications have sprung up after the easing of censorship, and formerly outlawed dissident and foreign news agencies have set up bureaus in Yangon.

But a draft press bill that places onerous restrictions on publications has already been passed by the lower house of parliament – and, like the Associations Law, it is expected to pass in the upper house when parliament resumes. In September 2012, the government announced the formation of a nominally independent press council, made up of prominent journalists and politicians, to help formulate the law.

But in February, Information Minister Aung Kyi announced a draft that maintained many of the draconian measures of the outgoing 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act, to the surprise of many observers. The press council strongly condemned the contents of the draft bill, claiming it had been formulated without its input, and submitted an alternate version in June directly to parliament, proposing amendments to 17 of the 68 clauses in the version submitted by the government.

While the draft bill does away with the pre-publication censorship and jail time outlined in the law it will replace, it will still require print outlets to apply for publication licences from an official registrar, who will have the power to revoke licences if publications cross vaguely-defined lines banning incitements to public disorder, threats to national security, or obscenity.

Although some changes to the draft bill were made before it was passed by the lower house, most of the press council’s original points of contention remain in place, particularly the clauses calling for mandatory registration of all publications. But the press council hasn’t been particularly vocal in calling for further changes.

Zayar Thaw alleges that the Ministry of Information has been working to silence the press council by buying them off.

In early September, President Thein Sein personally donated 50 million kyats (US$51,000) to the press council, after which Zayar Thaw claims criticism of the draft bill in the local media was much more muted. “Most of the voices of the media guys disappeared,” he said.

While newspapers and journals remain the most popular way to get news in Myanmar, the country’s broadcast media is also on the verge of a shake-up. Dominated by government- and military-run channels, there are no truly independent broadcasters in Myanmar, according to Toe Zaw Latt, head of Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), an ex-dissident satellite broadcaster based in Norway that opened an office in Yangon last year.

Like their print counterparts, Myanmar’s broadcasters will also be subject to a new law in the near future, but broadcasting reform is at an even more embryonic stage, with no draft legislation on the table yet. “My concern is whether [the new broadcasting law] will grant licences for private operators, for both FM and TV,” he said. “That’s one of the key things we’d like to know.”

He’s also worried about government interference. “We also want to know what the control mechanisms [are going to be]. Are there going to be registration officers like there are under the new press law? Will there be a clause to scrutinize whether your broadcasts are OK or not? I don’t think they’ll 100 per cent relax [the rules].”

But Toe Zaw Latt claims the main issue is one of capacity – the government is trying to push ahead with reforms too quickly on all fronts, and parliament simply can’t keep pace. Despite the harsh proscriptions of the draft press bill, he feels the government is sincere in its desire to reform Myanmar’s media landscape for the better.

“This is 48 years and 20 days of [having a] censorship board, and it was all done by one ministry, not by journalists,” he said. “So they [the government] don’t know [what they’re doing] – it’s like a blind wise man touching an elephant and trying to figure out what an elephant looks like.”

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