The Burmese government announced on Monday the lifting—after 50 years—of direct censorship of print media, removing requirements that journalists submit articles on religion or politics for government review before publication.
Private daily newspapers remain banned, though, and regulations against publishing information “harmful to state security” remain in place, leaving open the possibility of self-censorship or of prosecution after articles appear in print.
Tint Swe, head of the government’s Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD), admitted in an interview with RFA’s Burmese service that previous censorship and removal of news items because of political concerns may have been unnecessary.
“We sometimes censored or removed items because of [political] worries. This was a mistake, and was probably unnecessary,” he said after the announcement of the end of censorship, in place since a military coup in 1962.
But Tint Shwe reminded journalists on the “need to be responsible” under the new media environment, as President Thein Sein’s administration implements political, economic, and other reforms after decades of harsh military rule.
“Journalists will need to adhere to [professional] ethics, and will need to be responsible in the use of their freedoms,” he told RFA’s Burmese service.
He said that “from now on, publications do not have to submit [their articles] to us before they are published.”
A 1962 regulation requiring that publishers be registered and a 1964 regulation requiring prepublication “screening” of articles have now both been removed, Tint Swe said.
“This will lead to many benefits,” he said, citing fewer delays in news stories reaching the people.
“For example, journals will be able to do more in terms of layout and arrangement … and since news had to be sent for screening a week ahead of publication, stories became outdated. This will not be the case anymore.”
In July, the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division briefly suspended two journals, The Voice and Envoy, apparently for having speculated on the details of an expected reshuffle of top government officials.
The journals were told when informed of the ban that the periods of their suspension were indefinite, and were asked to follow regulations set down by the PSRD and the repressive Printers and Publishers Act enacted after the 1962 coup.
The ban was lifted after two weeks, though, following widespread criticism and protests by journalists in the cities of Rangoon, Mandalay, and Monya.
Speaking to RFA, Voice editor-in-chief Kyaw Min Swe, hailed Monday’s announcement of the wider lifting of censorship on all journals.
“We acknowledge and welcome this change,” he said, adding that the lifting of requirements for prepublication screening of articles had long been expected.
“Tint Swe [had previously] said that censorship would be abolished by June, and now it’s August. This must be the result of the collective efforts of journalists writing about this issue,” he said.
Tint Swe denied that the ban on The Voice and Envoy magazines was intended to be “indefinite,” as some had charged.
“From the beginning, we had said this would be temporary, but then there were accusations of ‘unlimited suspension’ and so on,” he said.
“In fact, we had intended only two weeks of suspension, and this is what we did.”
Tint Swe declared himself “optimistic” regarding the future of Burma’s print and other media, saying “I assume this will be better.”
The Thein Sein administration, which took over from the military junta in March last year, has introduced the most sweeping reforms in the former British colony since the 1962 coup, including freeing large numbers of political prisoners and easing rules on protests.
Reported by Kyaw Kyaw Aung. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Richard Finney.