Burma urged to reform laws restricting press freedom
June 3, NY: The Committee to Protect Journalists, an international, independent press-freedom organization, write to congratulate you on your recent appointment to the presidency of Myanmar's new elected government. As Myanmar enters a new, democratic era after decades of military rule, we urge you to prioritize legal reforms that guarantee and protect press freedom, including measures that ensure reporters can practice their profession independently without fear of reprisal.
CPJ acknowledges and commends your government's preliminary moves in support of press freedom. 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 labor for their investigative reporting on a military installation. 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. CPJ had long advocated for the law's repeal. We also welcomed Information Minister Pe Myint's statement, cited in recent media interviews, that your government would soon ask parliament to amend and repeal various other laws that restrict media freedom.
Chief among the laws we hope you will reconcile with the 2008 constitution's press freedom protections is the 1923 Official Secrets Act, a colonial-era law frequently used to persecute journalists -- including the five Unity journalists you recently freed from prison -- who report subjects deemed as "prejudicial to the safety or interests of the state." Convictions under the law carry maximum 14 year prison terms. We urge you to recommend scrapping this law and to consider replacing it with a Freedom of Information Act that promotes transparency in all state agencies, including the armed forces.
The 2014 Printers and Publishers Registration Law, which allows authorities to withhold media licenses and ban reporting that they deem damaging "national security, rule of law, or community peace and tranquility" or as "insult[ing] religion," should also be amended or repealed. The law's provisions have been used, in effect, to nullify the 2014 Media Law, drafted with significant input from journalists, which includes protections of press freedom.
We also recommend the amendment of laws governing the use of electronic media to better safeguard press freedom. CPJ has long advocated for the amendment of the 2004 Electronic Transactions Law, which strictly bans the use of the Internet and other electronic media to send or receive information considered "detrimental" to the nation's security, economy, culture or "peace and tranquility." The law, which carries 15-year prison penalties, has been used to sentence independent bloggers to prison. CPJ is likewise concerned about provisions in the 2013 Telecommunications Law, specifically section 66(d), which allows for three-year prison terms for any "defamation" or "disturbances" spread over telecom networks.
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 criminalize 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. While these media groups are now free to report from inside Myanmar, the law, unreformed, continues to threaten their operations.
The Unlawful Associations Act was used to justify the detention of journalist Aung Kyaw Naing, popularly known as Par Gyi, who was accused of belonging to an insurgent group while covering hostilities near the township of Kyaikmayaw in October 2014. Par Gyi was later shot and killed in military custody. Neither the military nor the civilian justice systems have convicted anyone of that crime. We at CPJ call on you to repeal the Unlawful Associations Act, to launch a truly independent investigation into Par Gyi's murder, and to bring the perpetrators to justice.
As Myanmar's first civilian leader in over six decades, your elected government has a historic opportunity to usher in enduring democratic rule. A free press is essential in this regard. While we welcome your government's initial moves, we encourage you to follow them with prompt and comprehensive legal reform.
The Oslo Times