Myanmar press still fighting for true freedom

Although unshackled from decades of direct censorship, journalists in Myanmar still face repressive laws that can land them in prison and say they will not stop fighting for greater freedom.

The end of pre-publication checks is the latest reform by a regime seeking the lifting of Western sanctions, but there are concerns that without wider changes a climate of fear will persist and self-censorship prevail.

"Many of the restrictions, laws and regulations that were applied under the old regime will continue to apply under this new system," said Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

"Journalists still run the risk of being imprisoned, harassed and intimidated for their journalism, so for us it's a half measure at best."

Myanmar's censorship board itself has not been abolished and weekly newspapers -- independent dailies are still banned -- will have to submit their content to the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department after they go to print.

Journalists still live under the shadow of the 1962 Printing Act, which saw many publishers, editors and journalists as well as activists sent to jail during almost half a century of military rule that ended last year.

The law ordered publishers to register all printing presses, empowered police to seize material published without approval and a carried a maximum three-year prison term -- and a fine -- for anyone in breach.

"As long as the 1962 law stands without being amended, real press freedom will always be in question," said Nyein Nyein Naing, executive editor at the 7Days News weekly paper.

Until the junta-era media laws are scrapped, journalists in the country -- ranked 11th worst in the world for press freedom by Reporters Without Borders -- say they will continue to seek greater rights.

"The censorship body must be abolished. The Electronic Act must be abolished. The 1962 Printing Act must be abolished. Only after that we can get real freedom of press," said Hlaing Thit Zin Wai, editor of the Venus Weekly.

Organisers of a journalists' rally planned for Tuesday to call for wider press freedom said police had rejected their application to protest and they were considering whether to appeal the decision.

The media also complain that there was not enough consultation about a new press law that was drafted by the information ministry in secret and is awaiting approval by the cabinet before being sent to parliament.

Pre-publication censorship was a hallmark of life under the generals who ran the country for decades and applied in the past to everything from newspapers to song lyrics and even fairy tales.

But in recent months private weekly news journals have been allowed to publish an increasingly bold range of stories, most notably about opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Reporters jailed under the junta have also been freed from long prison terms.

"Five years ago we couldn't write about politics and democracy. Aung San Suu Kyi was not part of our media coverage. We couldn't use the phrase 'military regime'. Now we can!" said Nyein Nyein Naing.

But in what campaigners criticised as a backward step, two journals were recently suspended for a fortnight for printing stories without prior approval from the censors.

And the mining ministry has filed a criminal defamation suit against The Voice Weekly, which reported that the auditor-general's office had discovered misappropriations of funds and fraud at the government division.

Under the 1962 act, both individuals and organisations can sue publications for defamation, in a country where for decades the judiciary was seen as a close ally of the junta.

"This is not only a matter of concern for the Voice. We're facing a case that is against the whole media industry," said Voice editor-in-chief Kyaw Min Swe after a court hearing Thursday.

A ruling on whether the case will proceed is expected on September 6.

Earlier this month the authorities announced the creation of a "Core Press Council" including journalists -- the majority with close links to the government -- a former supreme court judge and retired academics to study media ethics and settle press disputes.

But some observers fear the moves are largely superficial changes by a regime seeking international acceptance.

"We question still the sincerity of these moves," said Crispin. "They seem to be giving just enough to try to win the next concession from the West and then, when they get that, resorting to their old wicked ways."

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