A draft of Burma’s highly-anticipated broadcasting law, which will pave the way for private enterprises including DVB to broadcast legally in the country for the first time, contains several troubling provisions that could restrict press freedom, media analysts have warned.
The latest version of the legislation, which is set to be discussed in parliament later this year, includes a number of restrictions that could be exploited by the government in order to stifle dissent, according to the watchdog Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF).
Private broadcasters are to be regulated by two bodies, known as the Authority and the Council, who will have the power to financially penalise and revoke licences from groups deemed to have violated the law.
Speaking to DVB on Thursday, Benjamin Ismaïl, head of the Asia-Pacific desk at RSF raised particular concern about the role of the 13-member Authority, which he described as a “government controlled body” that will mainly be composed of state ministers, including the Director of the Directorate of Public Relations and Psychological Warfare.
A Swedish broadcaster, who also reviewed the draft on behalf of DVB, questioned the Authority’s “strange composition” adding that the law’s “dubious wording” seemed to imply that it could have “quite a lot of power” even though it is not meant to be able to influence the decisions of the Council.
Ismaïl added that the Council, which is meant to be independent but whose members will be selected by President Thein Sein based on recommendations made by the military-dominated parliament, is also open to political manipulation.
“The members can clearly be selected for their allegiance to the [government] and there’s a risk [that it will influence] the political orientation of the Council,” he said.
Aye Chan Naing, executive director at DVB, noted that under the proposed structure any ruling party would effectively control the broadcast media. “These two bodies are the key decision-making bodies for all broadcast media and it should be free from government and single political party direct control,” he said.
Ismaïl also identified the imposition of crippling financial penalties, potentially reaching millions of kyats, as an issue that could asphyxiate the media unless rates were capped according to an organisation’s size and income. A law further bans “foreign citizens” from assuming senior management positions or owning more than 30 percent of shares in a broadcasting company.
Article 53 prohibits cross-ownership of private newspapers and broadcast media, but fails to elaborate on the legal status of new media technologies. Ismaïl points out that it raises questions for Burma’s first internet radio service, 7Online, which is currently operating without any formal licence from the government.
“Online media will only expand as internet penetration increases,” he said.
He added that banning cross-ownership, which would require multimedia organisations to obtain separate licences for TV and radio, is only one possible way to avoid the concentration of certain voices in the broadcast media. “If the government truly encourages pluralism there are many other methods.”
Another worrying provision is found in Article 77, which stipulates that a broadcasting code should be developed in accordance with “religious and ethical values”. In January, Burma’s first sex education magazine was banned by the government for reportedly offending the country’s moral values, despite provoking criticism from free speech campaigners.
The new law is set to end decades of tight-fisted state control over the broadcast industry in Burma, and is the latest in a string of new legislations affecting the country’s nascent media landscape. But many of the laws currently being pushed through parliament, including themedia law and the printing and publishing law, have been derided by observers as an attemptto resurrect censorship in the former military dictatorship.
Activists say the government has systematically excluded civil society and media voices from the drafting process, and often overruled any objections when the bills have reached parliament. Both the media law and the printing and publishing law are set to be approved by the union parliament during this current session.
Burma presently ranks 151 out of 179 on RSF’s annual press freedom index.