Newspaper editors in Myanmar will no longer have to scramble late at night to replace stories condemned to the cutting room floor by government censors, as the rapidly reforming country scrapped pre-publication vetting yesterday.
The press reforms, announced by the director-general of the Ministry of Information’s Press Scrutiny and Registration Department, Tint Swe, at a meeting with about 80 editors yesterday morning, come into effect immediately but are accompanied by strict self-censorship rules.
Editors will now be expected to enforce these rules themselves, which, among other things, forbid any negative political or economic reporting about state policies.
Still, despite the restrictions, media operators in Myanmar are hailing the reforms as a remarkable symbol of the reform process in a country where journalists testing the limits of tight state control have faced intimidation and imprisonment for close to 50 years.
“I’m thrilled and delighted to see the red pen being consigned to the rubbish bin,” Myanmar Times editor-in-chief and Phnom Penh Post publisher Ross Dunkley said yesterday.
“It’s another load of cement being poured into the foundations of democracy there. This will definitely help hold it up. In fact, we are now just a couple of short moves of being able to create a new social contract in Myanmar,” Dunkley said.
Even so, while political prisoners remain behind bars, including his business partner at the Myanmar Times – paper co-founder U Myat Swe – true reconciliation between the people and the government cannot take place, Dunkley added.
U Myat Swe, one of many journalists imprisoned in Myanmar, has served almost eight years of a 14-year sentence for bypassing censorship regulations.
Tint Swe said yesterday that news outlets will still be required to submit copies of their publications to the PSRD after they were printed.
“From now on, our department will just carry out registering publications for keeping them at the national archives and issuing a licence to printers and publishers,” he said.
State mouthpiece The New Light of Myanmar remains the only daily newspaper in the country, but Swe hinted the chances of privately owned competitors being offered licences could be improving.
“We can say it has become closer than before. It could happen after enacting the necessary media law,” he said.
Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government is in the process of drafting that law and at the same time has been unofficially allowing publications an increased degree of liberty to print things once thought unthinkable, such as pictures of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi on the front page.
Since complete military rule ended in Myanmar in March, a series of sweeping reforms have been introduced including the release of hundreds of political prisoners ahead of by-elections in April, where opposition groups loudly campaigned on the streets of Yangon.
Yesterday’s reforms are edicts applying to news or religious affairs content and follow the lifting of pre-publication censorship on all other topics including celebrities, health, children, technology, sport, economics and crime over the course of the past 15 months.
But the onerous accompanying self-censorship requirements, which are stipulated in 16 points divided into political, economic, social and general categories, have left others questioning whether the reforms simply transfer responsibility for draconian restrictions.
Khin Ohmar, co-ordinator of Burma Partnership, a network of civil society organisations that support democracy, human rights and freedom in Myanmar, said he found it disturbing that the government’s idea of press liberalisation included a ban on criticising any of its policies.
“Abolishing media censorship by including a prohibition of any criticism of government policies and mandated review after every article is published by the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department is just absurd,” he said.
On August 10, the Myanmar Journalists Association announced it was pulling out of a Core Press Council established by the Ministry of Information days earlier, citing concerns over the lack of journalists in its make-up and provisions in its mandate that would curtail freedom of expression.
The council has since been suspended pending negotiations.