Burma ends direct media censorship in latest reform

Burma yesterday abolished direct media censorship, the latest dramatic reform by its quasi-civilian regime, but journalists face other formidable restrictions including a ban on private daily newspapers and a pervasive culture of self-censorship.

Under the new rules, journalists no longer have to submit reports to state censors before publication, ending a practice strictly enforced during nearly half a century of military rule that ended in March last year.

“This is a step in the right direction and a good approach, but questions of press freedom will remain,” said Aung Thu Nyein, a senior associate at the Vahu Development Institute, a Thailand-based think tank.

“We can expect the government to still try to assert some control, probably using national security to keep the media in check.”

Previously, every song, book, cartoon, news report, and planned piece of art required approval by teams of censors rooting out political messages and criticisms of one of Asia’s most repressive governments.

Changes have gathered steam since June last year when the ministry of information decided to allow about half of Burma’s privately run weekly journals and monthly magazines to publish without submitting page proofs to a censorship board in advance.

Restrictions were yesterday lifted on the remaining 80 political and six religious journals, said Tint Swe, head of the press censorship board at the ministry of information.

Over the past year, Burma has introduced the most sweeping reforms in the former British colony since a 1962 military coup. A semi-civilian government, stacked with former generals, has allowed elections, eased rules on protests, and freed dissidents among other changes.

Papers have since been testing the boundaries, often putting opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on front pages and giving coverage to government critics. Editors say this was unthinkable before the middle of last year.

But while the authorities can no longer count on the same strictly controlled media that was ranked 169th of 179 nations in a global press freedom index by anti-censorship group Reporters Without Borders last year, significant restrictions remain.

Privately run daily newspapers are still not permitted, leaving a monopoly to state-run papers filled with propaganda. It was only last year that they dropped back-page banners attacking Western media for “sowing hatred”.

Asked about the chance of ending a ban on private dailies, Tint Swe said: “We can say it has become closer than before. It could happen after enacting the necessary media law.”

Journalists also said they still feared their reports could fall foul of various laws on the statute book, especially when covering issues deemed sensitive to national security.

Zaw Htike, a senior reporter and secretary of the Burmese Journalists Network, said journalists would now have to take more responsibility for what they wrote. “I believe we also need to promote a code of ethics among journalists.”


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