Press Censorship Is Finally Abolished In Myanmar -- Except When It's Not

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Newsstand in Myanmar
A young woman sells weekly journals at a newsstand in Yangon.

The Myanmar government on Monday announced that it has lifted a 48-year-old practice of directly censoring news organizations, a move that is being met with equal parts enthusiasm and caution among international press organizations.

The Southeastern nation's Information Ministry -- which has long sought to control the flow of information in one of the world's most restrictive governments toward the press -- announced in a statement to newspaper editors that their news articles "no longer need to pass the censorship board." The new rules bolster ongoing democratic reforms in the country that began last year, when the newly elected Burmese President, Thein Sein, started opening up the country's economy and freeing political detainees.

Since then, Myanmar's move toward a free press has been a gradual process. In June of last year, the government began allowing news outlets to publish uncensored articles about limited subject matter -- beginning with entertainment, sports, children and health. Articles about crime, economics and legal affairs were permitted in December, followed by articles about education in March. Monday's announcement lifts final restrictions on articles pertaining to religion and politics. The government also lifted blocks on some 30,000 websites, according to a report by Radio Netherlands Worldwide.

Reactions from organizations and governments around the world have been mixed. U.S. officials praised the move, although State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland cautioned that lifting direct censorship is only the first step toward media freedom. "The censor board itself has not been eradicated," she told reporters, "which is obviously a step that we would like to see the Burmese government take because they continue to monitor the press."

Meanwhile, several reports from Burmese press groups situated elsewhere in Asia say the censorship abolishment is largely an empty gesture. The Democratic Voice of Burma, an organization based in Thailand, reported that Monday's announcement was followed by a government-issued document to news outlets, reminding them that "the state shall not be negatively criticised."

According to the Irrawaddy, an organization made up of exiled Burmese journalists, Myanmar has yet to achieve total freedom of the press. "The government will continue to monitor news and bulletins," the group said on its website. Irrawaddy also decried the government's failure to  lift the 2004 Electronic Transaction Law, which criminalizes the online distribution of "information relating to secrets of the security of the state."

However, the group acknowledged that Monday's decision is a "landmark move" that brings Myanmar a step closer toward the abolishment of the censorship board, which it has described as "draconian" and akin to "Big Brother." Before the government began lifting restrictions last year, all published material -- including news reports, books, songs and even cartoons -- required pre-approval by Burmese censors intent on weeding out messages critical of the government.

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