Journalists in Burma welcomed today’s announcement that they will no longer be required to submit articles to the country’s draconian censorship board before going to print, but said the move was not enough to restore full media freedom.
Tint Swe, the head of Burma’s Press Scrutiny and Registration Board (PSRD), told the editors of weekly journals on Monday that effective immediately, their outlets “no longer need to pass the censorship board.”
He added that the easing of restrictions was the result of policy changes within the Ministry of Information. Despite the move, however, laws that severely limit press freedom remain in force.
“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,” said Zaw Thet Htwe, the spokesperson of the Committee for Freedom of the Press (CFP).
In the past, journalists have been given lengthy prison sentences for violating these laws. During the Saffron Revolution, for instance, bloggers and other “citizen journalists” were charged under the Electronics Act for communicating with the exile media through the Internet.
The PSRD itself was formed on Aug. 6, 1964, two years after the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act was imposed by Burma’s newly formed military junta.
In the past year, the PSRD has allowed some non-news publications to go to print without having to go through censorship first, but this is the first time in 48 years that news media have been permitted to do so. Tint Swe said that the new policy applies to 80 news journals and six religious journals that had remained under censorship until today.
However, the journals are still required to write in accordance with 16 guidelines, under which editors and reporters must follow journalistic ethics and ensure that their stories are accurate and don’t harm national security or “the dignity of the state.”
“We will be able to write news story more freely as there is no more scrutiny over our writing. But at the same, the editors will have to take more responsibility for their publications,” said Thiha Saw, the editor of Open News Journal and Myanma Danna magazine.
Especially sensitive, said Thiha Saw, is the subject of corruption—something that many of the country’s top leaders have been accused of.
Any publication that harms the reputation of a government department can still lose it license under the Printers and Publishers Registration Act, and publishers can also face heavy sentences under Burma’s Penal Code if they they are found guilty of inciting the public to unlawful activity.
However, Thiha Saw said the real problem is not the 1962 act, but the numerous “regulations, orders and directives” that have been imposed over five decades of military rule to restrict the media.
The 1962 press law will remain in place until a new media law is passed by Parliament sometime later this year. The Ministry of Information submitted a draft law to the president’s office on Aug. 7 and it will soon be sent to Parliament, said Tint Swe. After this, he added, the new law will be publicized.
The move comes as members of the CFP plan to hold protests to demand media freedom later this week. The CFP was formed three weeks ago to call for an end to censorship and media oppression. Despite the easing of censorship, the protests will go ahead as planned, said CFP spokesperson Zaw Thet Htwe.
The move is also seen as a green light to publishers who want to publish privately owned daily newspapers. “Ending censorship gives us a chance to publish daily newspapers, since the 1962 act does not prevent publishers from publishing newspapers, but the amended regulations did,” said Thiha Saw.