Journalists in Myanmar will no longer have to send their articles to state censors before publication, a landmark step announced Monday toward lifting restrictions on the press.
But reporters in the changing country still fear being punished for what they write. Free speech activists say other rules that clamp down on government criticism or touchy topics are still in place, inhibiting journalists from writing freely.
“If you break the law, what’s going to happen?” asked Aye Chan Naing, chief editor of Democratic Voice of Burma, which broadcasts news on Myanmar from Norway. “The laws are still there.”
Myanmar, long isolated under a military junta, has been tiptoeing toward reform over the past year, freeing hundreds of political prisoners and allowing democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi to run for office. The changes have won it new investment from abroad. Media censorship has slowly eased as well, allowing once-prohibited photos of Suu Kyi to show up in the press.
A government official told reporters earlier this year that the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division would be abolished, its next step toward reform. But while the Monday announcement said the censorship board would no longer shape articles before they went to print, it will still scrutinize what gets printed after the fact, according to media watchdogs.
“This is a sea change only because the bar was so low before,” said Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn, director of the Southeast Asia Program at Freedom House. “We’re a long way away from freedom of the press.”
The Democratic Voice of Burma reported Monday that as the changes were announced, local papers were handed strict new guidelines banning “wording that encourages, supports or incites individuals and organizations that are dissident to the state” and “things that will damage ties with other countries,” a sign that journalists are now expected to censor themselves.
Furthermore, the looser rules do not apply to television and radio reporting, which reach more people and are more heavily controlled by the government, Aye Chan Naing said.
“It’s a big step,” he said in a phone interview from Thailand. “But if you write something that could tarnish the image of the government –- that sort of thing is still banned in the law. We’re watching to see how much things are really changing.”
The rules had already been relaxed for other kinds of publications, such as sports or fashion magazines, that didn't deal with the sensitive subjects of politics and religion. News media had been required to send in articles for advance censorship for 48 years, the Irrawaddy reported.
Myanmar is drafting a new law to regulate the press, which media freedom groups are eyeing closely. Reporters Without Borders argued Monday that the censorship board should be totally disbanded as soon as possible, still alarmed by the possibility of “post-publication censorship.”
Outside analysts say the wave of change could still be reversed, wary of being too sanguine about democracy in Myanmar before it is truly put to the test. In three years, most parliamentary seats will be in play, the first time that the opposition will have a shot at gaining the majority.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Customers buy local weekly journals at a roadside shop in Yangon on Monday. Credit: Khin Maung Win / Associated Press