A 50-year old nasty diktat is no more. In a dramatic turn the Burma government announced it will abolish media censorship – a move welcomed by Burmese journalists. Under these rules no journalists would be compelled anymore to submit their articles to state censors before they publish.
However the turn is yet to be complete and suspicions remain as the same people who jailed journalists are still in charge of the dreadfully restrictive legislation giving them the ability to crackdown on publications and even close them if deemed a threat to national security. The censor board is yet to be abolished and will still be looking at articles post-publications to determine whether any publishing laws are violated.
Journalists remain cautious as enough laws remain on the statute books to force self-censorship. Some of these laws, in place since the military coup in 1962, force journalists to avoid anything that is deemed as opposing the constitution or insulting to ethnic groups, leaving enormous power in the hands of government to silence dissent.
There is no doubt that President Thein Sein's reformist government has significantly relaxed media controls over the last year, allowing journalists to publish articles that would have been unthinkable during the era of absolute military rule. However taboo subjects remain such as corruption and alleged abuses by army officers during the military dictatorship. Only last month, the censor board suspended two weekly magazines, the Voice Weekly and Envoy, for speculating on the cabinet reshuffle.
While welcoming the new mood for reform, journalists still feel that if press laws were not also reformed, then the changes promised by government can be rolled back if it feels that a free press is becoming a threat.
Some however believe that it would be difficult for the authorities to put the genie back in the bottle. A new net-savvy generation is now part of the equation. It was the protest by young journalists demanding the right to publish freely that may have forced the hand of government. They now have access to information elsewhere and don’t rely anymore on the two state-owned propaganda sheets, the Burmese-language Mirror and the English-language New Light of Myanmar which, until not long ago, instructed citizens to “oppose those relying on external elements and holding negative views, and crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy".