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Press Freedom

'A wind of freedom is blowing through the Burmese media'

Political transformation in Myanmar has brought major changes in press freedom. Censorship has been lifted but there are still key restrictions that need to be abolished, says Reporters without Borders.

Yangon is slowly awakening from its tropical slumber. The streets of Myanmar's biggest city, the former capital also known as Rangoon, are almost empty. There are a few women selling corn so believers can feed the pigeons.

Meanwhile, newspaper sellers are setting up their stands on the side of the road. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi smiles from the covers. The headlines speculate about the possible resignation of President Thein Sein. They talk about protests at Letpadaung Mine and the ongoing persecution of the Rohingyas. "The Voice" has an article about the pros and cons of federalism.

Kiosks in Myanmar (Foto: Rodion Ebbighausen, Mai 2013)

The media are flourishing as Myanmar goes through transition

All this would have been impossible just a few months ago. Privately-owned dailies have only been back in circulation since April 1. Before they were only allowed to publish on a weekly basis to give the censors time to do their work. The government announced it was dissolving the censorship board last August.

'We can write what we think freely'

"A wind of freedom is blowing through the Burmese media," Reporters without Borders reported last December.

Zeya Thu, the deputy chief editor of "The Voice," which used to be a weekly, is impressed. "I wasn't so optimistic at the start of the reforms. I thought that censorship would last another two or three years. But then suddenly it had disappeared."

He says that subjects that used to be taboo such as corruption, the role of the army, human rights abuses or ethnic minorities and conflict are now acceptable. "We can write what we think freely," he says.

Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi (Foto:Khin Maung Win/AP/dapd)

The Lady is a prominent feature in Myanmar's media today

However, in its December report "Burmese Media Spring," Reporters without Borders cautioned against being too hasty in conferring praise. It did boost Myanmar in its press freedom index rankings from 169 to 151 out of 179 but said there was still a long way to go.

"All the laws restricting freedom of expression and information are still in place and seem to constitute the main obstacle to an improvement in media freedom in Burma," it stated.

"Many journalists think that the abolition of censorship will not be complete until all the repressive laws affecting media workers are repealed and replaced by a media law that guarantees the protection of reporters and editors regardless of the medium in which they work."

'Have reliable sources'

When Myanmar announced it would dissolve its Press Scrutiny and Registration Division last August, it also published 16 guidelines to keep the media in check. These do not have a legal weight but are highly recommended.

Newspaper kiosks in Yangon
(Foto: Rodion Ebbighausen, Mai 2013)

Privately-owned dailies have been allowed only since April 2013

The guidelines fall into four categories - Political, Economic, Social and General. "In any article critical of government or private-sector procedures, give the exact time, place, name and organization," falls under the General category. "Have reliable sources of information and proof."

Zeya Thu agrees that it is important to have reliable sources and says that there is some catching up to do now that censorship has been partly lifted. "Our journalists have to become more professional and improve their knowledge. What is important is the profession's social responsibility."

"Both the government and society have to understand what the media do and what their role in society is," he adds.

There are more and more people on the streets. They are intrigued by the headlines and approach the newspaper stands to read more but in the end only a few actually buy one of the newly-available dailies.

DW.DE