Self-censorship still a threat to press freedom, says Burmese journalist

Screen grab of the independent Venus News Weekly's first uncensored issue. The front page features the headline "After more than 48 years, pre-publication censorship has been abolished." The accompanying photo shows journalists protesting censorship in Yangon on August 4, wearing shirts that say "Stop Killing the Press."
 
The Burmese government announced Monday that it has abolished pre-publication censorship of the country’s media, which had restricted journalists for half a century. However, as our Observer in Yangon explains, many obstacles still stand in the way of real press freedom.
 
Under the new rules, journalists will no longer have to send their articles to censors before publication. However, the Information Ministry will still be keeping an eye on what is published, meaning media outlets could potentially still have their licenses revoked if they publish 'objectionable content'. Other harsh laws regarding national security, which have frequently been used to censor and arrest journalists, are still in place. Moreover, independent daily newspapers remain banned; independent publications are only allowed to publish on a weekly basis.
 
The country’s draconian censorship practices began slowly easing last March when a quasi-civilian government – which includes numerous former generals – replaced military rule, which had been in place since 1962. The new government has ushered in a series of sweeping reforms, which include letting go of hundreds of political prisoners, and allowing opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to run for office. She now holds a seat in parliament.
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“Newspapers won’t suddenly overhaul their coverage, but it should encourage them to push the limits”

Ye Naing Moe is a freelance journalist. He lives in Yangon.
 
Many journalists here cautiously welcomed this announcement, but their experiences have taught them not to be too optimistic. Newspapers will still have to send their articles to the Information Ministry after publication, and so they can still face being shut down. The hope is that this will eventually end, and that this is just a transitional phase.
 
Still, I think this is a big step forward for our country. Before, we journalists had to think of the censors before we even started writing an article. I don’t think newspapers will suddenly overhaul their coverage, but it should certainly encourage them to push the limits.
 
Already, over the past year, the censors had become a bit more lenient, and so newspapers were able to start writing about opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as report on cases of corruption among public officials. The public clearly wants to read more about corruption, so I think that’s where newspapers will really try to push the old boundaries. It will also be interesting to see if they use this newfound freedom to write about former leader General Than Swe and his cronies, because in the past, this was an extremely sensitive topic to cover. Some of his generals are in the government today, so they might have to tread carefully. Our current leaders don’t want us to look back.
 
“Censorship is also inside our own heads”
 
I imagine it will also remain difficult to cover ethnic conflicts, as authorities can charge journalists who cover armed conflicts under an act that prohibits “dealing with illegal organisations.” When I travelled to Kachin state last May to cover the conflict there, I was very nervous that I would be arrested. Luckily, I was not, but with this law, the authorities easily could have charged me if they had wanted to.
 
Self-censorship is another serious threat to press freedom in this country. Journalists have been under this system for five decades. Censorship is inside our own heads. We’re going to need some time to realise that we’re in a whole new field. However, the younger ones haven’t had such bad experiences as their elders, and so they seem more than ready to cope with the challenges of this new era.
 
A more pressing concern, however, is the new media law, which is still in the draft stages. It is expected to soon be handed over to parliament for a vote. The problem is, we in the media have no idea what’s in it. Of course, the Information Ministry says it’s great, but we would really like to see the draft. Until then, we’ll remain quite nervous.
 
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