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Journalists' voices essential in Burmese media reform, says IFJ

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) supports Myanmar journalists as they work to create a more open media landscape and calls on Myanmar's government to respect and embrace the important role journalism plays as the country moves toward democracy.

Journalist organisations united with the IFJ this week to issue a statement in support of press freedom in Myanmar following discussions on the dramatic media changes since 2011.

The Myanmar Journalist Association (MJA), the IFJ's affiliate in Myanmar, issued the joint statement with Myanmar Journalist Network (MJN) and Myanmar Journalist Union, after a recent historic gathering in Yangon with journalists from around the country.

"Great changes have taken place in Myanmar, opening up media and allowing journalists to publish without censorship. As we see our media grow and flourish, we are monitoring our government as they craft new media laws and welcome inclusive discussion to ensure a healthy and free media into the future," the statement said.

The country's fourth estate has witnessed significant media reform under President U Thein Sein as part of the democratisation of the country that effectively ended 48 years of direct government censorship and saw jailed journalists released. Exiled media groups such as the Irrawaddy, Mizzima and Democratic Voice of Burma have returned, international media websites have been unblocked and a number of new titles have also sprouted since the Information Ministry granted permission to privately-owned dailies.

While the IFJ welcomed the recent reforms it warned that there are many legal obstacles still to overcome if Myanmar journalists are to work in a free media environment.

"The era of censorship may have ended and journalists are forging a new path, but many challenges remain. For now, the state still controls broadcasting and we have concerns about the current drafting of the country's legal framework for media," the IFJ said.

The government of Myanmar started preparing legislation in early 2012 in an effort to replace the highly repressive current legislative regime, including the draconian Printers and Publishers Registration Law, 1962. But that process has been hampered by a lack of consultation with the country's media.

Despite having tasked the newly formed Interim Press Council to take on the job of drafting new press laws, the Ministry of Information bypassed the council and released its own Printing and Publishing Enterprises Draft Law in March.

The law, which passed by the Parliament's lower house in July under, renews the government's powers to issue and revoke publishing licenses for newspapers, websites and foreign news agencies and includes strict rules on obscenity and inciting public disorder.

The bill is yet to pass the Upper House. Meanwhile the Press Council's draft media, released in January, was not considered. The Press Council, which is made up of journalists, trade unions, media owners and civil society stakeholders, is currently working on a second draft of its law.

"Under international law, registration requirements for the print media are regarded with suspicion, in part because they may be abused to exert control over the media," the IFJ said.

"If the Ministry of Information's law is passed through the Upper House, it calls into question the Myanmar's government commitment to reforming the legal landscape for freedom of expression."

The IFJ is urging the Upper House of Myanmar's government to send this current form of press legislation back for review and further reform by consulting with all parties involved in the process, most importantly the recommendations of the Press Council.

"The future of a free media in Myanmar is not possible without the input of the media itself. We urge that the Myanmar government ensures that journalists' voices are not only heard but their concerns and perspectives incorporated into new press legislation as the process of reform continues," the IFJ said.

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