Burma has said it is abolishing direct censorship of the media, in the latest in a flurry of democratic reforms taking place in the country.
In what some said was the most important move in the last 50 years towards developing a free press, journalists will no longer have to submit their work to state censors before publication. However, campaigners pointed out that a number of other laws that have been used in the past to harass the media remain in place.
“It’s a real improvement, but the 2004 Electronics Act, as well as the draconian 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act, should also be abolished in order for the fourth pillar to enjoy full press freedom,” Zaw Thet Htwe, a spokesperson of the Committee for Freedom of the Press, told the Irrawaddy magazine.
Journalists have long been among the most vulnerable of Burma’s citizens, during decades in which the media was tightly controlled and censors could hold up publication for weeks or months if they disapproved of an article. Scores of journalists were jailed.
Such was the level of regulation that journalists and other writers sometimes tried to use codes to express their opinion. In 2008, the poet Saw Wai was detained after using a Valentine’s Day poem to deliver a message about the military junta. Read vertically, the first character in each line of the poem, written in Burmese, spelled out: “Power crazy senior general Than Shwe.”
The Information Ministry, which has long controlled what can be printed, made the announcement on its website. According to the Associated Press, the head of the ministry’s Press Scrutiny and Registration Department, Tint Swe, also conveyed the news to a group of editors in Rangoon. The move had been expected for months but was repeatedly delayed as the government struggles to draft a new media law to overhaul the industry here.
Tint Swe previously said the censor board itself would be abolished when censorship ends. But Monday’s announcement indicated the board will stay and retain the powers it has always had to suspend publications if it believes outlets have broken rules.
Nyein Nyein Naing, an editor from the Seven Day News Journal who attended Monday's meeting, said journalists will still have to submit their articles to the censor board. But now, she said, they will be required to do so after publication, apparently to allow the government to determine whether any publishing laws are violated.
It is likely that some media organisations will continue to tread warily and to self-censor, while others will continue to push at the boundaries. Following the release of opposition Aung San Suu Kyi in November 2010, journalists could barely believe they were suddenly able to print her photograph on the front page.
Yet some things will remain contentious, among them issues of national security and clashes with ethnic groups. Much of the Burmese media has been outspoken in its criticism of the Rohingya, a long-oppressed Muslim community that in recent months has been involved in clashes with their Buddhists neighbours in western Burma. Scores of people have been killed.