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Myanmar holds off on press law following criticism

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AYE AYE WIN | March 18, 2013 08:29 AM EST | AP

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YANGON, Myanmar — Myanmar journalists just getting used to their new era of freedom howled when the government announced plans for a media law that could lock many old restrictions back into place. Then, in the latest of many moves that never would have happened under the country's old military rulers, the government backed off.

A bill restricting publishers, drawn up by the Ministry of Information without input from press groups, might yet become law. But journalists' complaints helped scuttle plans to pass the legislation as soon as this week.

Now the changes won't be considered until June at the earliest, and only after government officials consult with members of the media. The information minister, who had said "poisonous" publications had made new rules necessary, is to discuss the proposal with journalists Saturday.

"I think the minister finally understands that the media industry is totally against the draft," said Zaw Thet Htwe, the editor of a health journal and a former political prisoner. "We cannot predict the outcome of our meeting on Saturday but we are happy that the minister listens to the views."

A new law could have had a chilling effect on the media days before Myanmar is to allow private daily newspapers to operate for the first time since 1964. Other private publications such as weeklies are already allowed, but the April 1 return of private dailies has been hailed as another step toward greater press freedom and democratic change.

The publishing bill had been scheduled to be discussed this week in Parliament, which will adjourn Friday and reconvene in June. Zaw Thet Htwe said he learned Monday that the bill is now off the agenda.

Kyaw Min Swe, editor-in-chief of the private weekly The Voice, said the speaker of Parliament's lower house did not allow debate on the legislation "because many media organizations have sent letters of criticism" to parliamentary officials. Legislators were in session until Monday evening and were not immediately available.

The proposed law would replace even tougher rules established in 1962 by the government of the late dictator Ne Win. The existing law allows the government to revoke licenses at any time and carries a maximum seven-year sentence for failing to register, though the current government has not used those provisions.

Journalists in Myanmar, also known as Burma, were regarded for decades as among the most restricted in the world, subjected to routine state surveillance, phone taps, imprisonment and censorship so intense that independent papers could not publish on a daily basis. Even photos of opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi were barred.

President Thein Sein's elected government has significantly relaxed media controls since taking power in 2011, allowing reporters to print material that would have been unthinkable during the five previous decades of absolute military rule. The government closed the Information Ministry's censorship bureau, which was known as the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department.

The government would have had little trouble pushing the publishing bill through this week if it had wanted to. Though a few dozen opposition politicians won office in a by-election last year, the ruling party commands a great majority in Parliament.

The bill would bar publishers from printing articles that "oppose and violate" the military-drafted 2008 constitution and articles that could undermine "law and order and incite unrest."

It calls for up to six-month prison sentences for failing to register news publications with the government, and for the appointment of a new "registration official" who will be in charge of monitoring the media and issuing publishing licenses.

"This draft law is nothing but a mechanism to control the media," Kyaw Min Swe said.

"If passed in the current form, the draft law will essentially replace Burma's old censorship regime with a similarly repressive new one," said Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists. "We urge lawmakers to amend this draft in a way that protects, not restricts, press freedom."

Information Minister Aung Kyi has defended the draft bill, saying that since media censorship was abolished many new and "poisonous" publications have emerged.

He specifically referred to 46 publications that had run photographs that were "contrary to Myanmar's cultural norms," an apparent reference to scantily clad women that now appear regularly on magazine front pages. He also said there have been articles that "encouraged gambling" and others that had prompted complaints from a state-run Buddhist organization as going against Buddhist teachings.

The proposed law is "capable of decontaminating the poisoned printed matters without restricting freedom of the press," the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper quoted Aung Kyi as saying when he submitted the bill to Parliament on March 8.

Journalists, however, note that the proposed law could go well beyond enforcing social norms and block media from publishing material critical of the government.

The legislation would protect a constitution that among other things bars Suu Kyi from seeking the presidency in elections set for 2015. The constitution bars anyone from the presidency whose spouse, child or parent holds foreign citizenship, a clause widely criticized as being tailored for Suu Kyi because her late husband was British, and her two sons hold British nationality.

Veteran journalist Win Tin, an 83-year-old former political prisoner, said the proposed media law would inevitably lead to self-censorship.

"Journalists will be too cautious to write stories about (proposed) amendments to the constitution," Win Tin said. "It could be construed as opposing the constitution."

After the bill was submitted, the Press Council, a government-formed group made up of journalists and government appointees, issued a statement calling for the parliamentary debate to be delayed until an amended version of the law can be drafted with input from media organizations.

Aung Kyi will meet Saturday with members of the council, which is drafting a separate press law that it says will protect journalists' rights.

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Associated Press Writer Jocelyn Gecker contributed to this report from Bangkok.