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In Myanmar, Press Freedom is a Double-Edged Sword

In Myanmar, Press Freedom is a Double-Edged Sword

It’s one step forward, two steps back for Myanmar’s beleaguered journalists.

President Thein Sein ostensibly closed the book on five decades of media repression this week by enacting two new measures designed to replace the country’s longstanding and draconian media law. The problem? The news laws are awfully contradictory. While the Press Law protects the rights and editorial freedom of journalists, the Printers and Publishers Registration Law seems to undercut those protections by giving the government the power to revoke or withhold publishing licenses at any time and for any reason.

Requiring media organizations to obtain publishing licenses at all is highly problematic, of course. In the first place, such requirements can be easily abused by government agencies or officials — and in Myanmar, which is already notorious for restricting press freedoms, the risks of this happening seem fairly high. The new law is also eerily, and disturbingly, reminiscent of the infamous 1962 media regulation of the same name. The old law gave the government complete discretion over what could be published and, under it, journalists could be — and were — jailed for up to seven years for publishing material "disrespecting the State." While much less severe than its precursor, the Printers and Publishers Registration Law includes a very vague ban on reporting that could "incite unrest," "insult religion" and "violate the Constitution," and imposes penalties of up to $500 for doing any of the above.

In a letter to Thein Sein on Monday, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists argued that the law "point[s] to a mounting clampdown on press freedom similar to the repression journalists faced under the military junta" that ruled the country until 2011.

Over the past two years, Thein Sein’s transitional government has eased longstanding censorship rules and released imprisoned journalists, setting off a mild media renaissance marked by the birth of dozens of new publications. But there are plenty of reasons to remain skeptical of the regime’s nods at reform. A case in point: The president signed the new laws as four Burmese journalists for the newspaper Unity Journal were going to trial for reporting the existence of an alleged chemical weapons factory in central Myanmar. The Irrawaddy, a national paper, reports that they’re being charged with leaking state secrets and and face up to 14 years in prison. Their conviction would seemingly fly in the face of the new press freedom law, which the state-run newspaper, New Light of Myanmar, described as proof positive that "investigative journalism and critical reporting [is now] backed by [the] government."

"The detention and trial of the Unity journalists is the clearest indication yet that military authorities are chafing under the more open reporting environment," Shawn Crispin, the southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, told the South China Morning Post Tuesday. "The conviction and sentencing to prison of the reporters would be the nail in the coffin of Myanmar’s supposed media reform drive."

Burmese journalists, in other words, can breathe small a sigh of relief that the Press Law makes their lives a little bit easier, and a little bit safer. But they better not get too comfortable with their newfound freedoms, lest they discover that they — like the four Unity Journal reporters now sitting in prison — weren’t so free in the first place.