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Burma Eases Censorship Rules

  • Daniel Schearf

A girl selling weekly journals waits for customers in Rangoon, Burma, April 2, 2012.

A girl selling weekly journals waits for customers in Rangoon, Burma, April 2, 2012.

Burma has announced an end to official censorship of the press after decades of tight government controls. Journalists and advocates welcomed the latest reform, but they also noted challenges to press freedom remain.

The Ministry of Information announced Monday that local media are no longer required to first submit their stories to a censorship board before publication.

The policy change follows decades of official controls on what news was published in Burma and how stories were worded.

Ko Ko, Vice President of the Burma Journalists Association, tells VOA it is a turning point for media in the country. But he also says further reforms are needed, including revision of an outdated 1962 media law that restricts reporting.

“Removal of the censorship board is a first step," Ko Ko said. "So, second thing. So, approval of new media law. But, new media law also should be in line with the international standard and democratic system.”

Burma’s 1962 media law was drawn up by the military the same year it seized power from an elected government. The law requires publishers to submit all printed material to press scrutiny boards.

Burma has gradually eased controls on the media since a 2010 election replaced half a century of overt military government with a nominally civilian one.

Burma’s lawmakers, while still dominated by the military, are drafting a new media law and are expected to vote on it soon.

Despite hailing the moves towards greater press freedom, advocates are still cautious

“We mark this important step but still we expect more," opined Johann Bihr, a spokesman with the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. "We expect clear guidelines written in the law so that journalists exactly know what are they liable to, what is the border and where are the sanctions. So far, local media are still in such a blurred situation that self-censorship can only prevail.”

Bihr points out that weeks ago, Burmese authorities suspended two publications indefinitely before later backing down in the face of public protest.

Burma’s state media already control all daily newspapers and TV channels.

The only private media are weekly journals but they enjoy great popularity for their creativity and pushing the boundaries of censorship.

But Burma analysts point out that reporters are also attacked under the guise of protecting national security.

“I’m pretty sure, you know, even without the press censorship board, you know, I think a lot of government agencies will try to control the media as well,” said Aung Thu Nyein of the Burma think tank Vahu Development Institute.

Earlier this month Burmese authorities abruptly announced the formation of a new press council to monitor and guide the media.

It was immediately rejected by media groups who claimed they were not consulted. They said the board was not independent and was given power to punish the media.

Many of those appointed to the council were not even aware they were chosen until the announcement.

Ko Ko found himself appointed temporary secretary of the body, which he rejected.

“We are not a monitoring body, we are not an authoritative body…We are not media police,” he stressed.

Several other appointed members also rejected the press council and the government was forced to suspend its formation. For now it remains unclear if the council will be reconstituted, and if so what role it will play in monitoring Burma’s media.

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