Legal regulation of journalism and media in Myanmar is often thought about more in terms of the ways in which specific laws can be weaponised against media practitioners, rather than protecting them in the course of their duties.
The 2014 Media Law sets out a fairly vague framework, and contains pronouncements about the rights of journalists. However, as can be seen with numerous cases, this has made little difference to the realities of reporting on the ground. Laws that are regularly used to criminalise journalism include the 1923 State Secrets Act, a sweeping Colonial-era holdover, as well as the Unlawful Associations Act. Defamation charges under 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Law are common.
Broadcasting was regulated under the 1989 State-owned Economic Enterprise Law until the Broadcasting Law was pushed through in 2015. In 2014 the Printing and Publishing Enterprise Law (PPEL) was adopted, which officially abolished pre-publication censorship and carved out a place for independent print publications in a landscape dominated by the state. However, the state and military remain the biggest players in the media, and retain huge influence over any judicial proceedings that may be brought against media operators.
In 2015, the Thein Sein administration declared through state media its intention to “[strive] for the realisation of good governance and clean government in terms of transparency and accountability”, as a part of its move toward joining the Open Government Partnership (OGP). However, progress has stalled – due at least in part to the fact that RTI is included in the eligibility criteria for OGP membership.
The Media Development Thematic Working Group (MDTWG), chaired jointly by UNESCO and the Ministry of Information, has held workshops on RTI. In 2016, the MoI submitted a draft RTI Law for consideration by civil society and rights groups.
However, it would appear that since then, there has been little movement on the issue. Indeed, even organisations leading the charge on the Right to Information have themselves struggled to get information about progress on the issue.
The Ministry of Information has indicated that the move toward e-Government should pave the way for proactive disclosure, however there is currently no requirement of ministries or government bodies to provide substantive information.
While the country, then known as Burma, voted in favour of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, it has fallen short on Article 19, which pertains to Freedom of Expression.
Journalists are often given information in the form of press releases, but are rarely given access to raw data and primary source material that would allow them to verify the contents of official releases.
Access to government files can come with potentially huge repercussions: As has been seen in the Reuters case, the possession of official documents can be pursued legally as a breach of the archaic State Secrets Act. The traditional power gap that exists between the government and the populace remains large, and there is little inclination from figures of authority to supply information requested by media.
Civil servants are somewhat limited in what information they can pass on. The Office Manual, compiled in 2008 under the Civil Service Law, grades information on sensitivity. This ranges from Top Secret to Normal. Public servants can, therefore, be disincentivised from publicly commenting on work-related matters – another contributing factor to politicians being rather media-shy.
Access to parliament can be difficult for journalists to wrangle: They are required to register one week in advance of the parliamentary session they wish to attend. Access varies across state parliaments. In some of the regional capitals, journalists can access the chambers. In Yangon, they are placed in a room where they are able to watch proceedings on closed-circuit television – something they could do from any home or office with state television.
The designation of armed groups as terrorist organisations poses a dilemma for journalists. Contacting the spokesperson of an ethnic armed organisation may see a media outlet or individual journalist run afoul of the government, putting them at direct risk of legal action.