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Myanmar eases restrictions on news organizations

By Tom Watkins, CNN
August 20, 2012 -- Updated 1559 GMT (2359 HKT)
A man reads a local journal in Yangon on Monday.
A man reads a local journal in Yangon on Monday.
  • Publishers still face a litany of restrictions
  • "The end of censorship doesn't mean we have freedom of the press," one editor says
  • Stories must be submitted to government agencies after publication
  • "Appalling" news and photographs are still off limits

(CNN) -- Myanmar's Ministry of Information announced Monday that it has ended pre-publication censorship, but it laid out a welter of strictures on free expression that remain in place.

The announcement was made by Tint Swe, the deputy director general of the Press Scrutiny and Registry Division of the Ministry of Information to a meeting of editors in Yangon.

It was welcomed as a "positive step to a free press" by Nyein Nyein Naing, executive editor of the Myanmar newspaper 7 Day News, but far from his ultimate goal.

"The Censorship and Press Scrutiny Board office still exists and will monitor whether we violate the law or other rules and regulations of the PSB," the editor noted.

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"Because we need to submit copies after publication to the PSB, the PSB will play an internal role of banning stories with laws and regulations after we have published.

"So the end of censorship doesn't mean we have freedom of press. Press freedom still has a long way to go. Drafting of the new press law is still being questioned by local journalists as local journalists were not allowed to be involved in any process of drafting law."

The information ministry's Swe circulated a document stipulating that the following shall not be published:

-- Stories critical of the state or the government;

-- Stories that could adversely affect relations with other countries;

-- News about corruption, manufacturing and dealing in illegal narcotic drugs, forced labor and child soldiers, etc., "without having source reliability";

-- Writing that incites or encourages individuals and organizations to oppose and disturb the state;

-- Stories that criticize "negatively" economic policies of the state;

-- Economic data, news, articles and photos from unreliable sources;

-- Stories revealing parts of the body that are "not appropriate to reveal according to Myanmar culture";

-- Sporting match predictions that "may happen to encourage gambling";

-- Supernatural stories "that may mislead children and youths";

-- Liquor and cigarette advertisements;

-- Photos of juveniles committing crimes;

-- "Appalling" news and photographs.

International journalism advocacy groups welcomed the move, but expressed concerns. "If this decision is implemented and if it really means that these newspapers and magazines will no longer have to submit the drafts of their articles to censors before publishing them, it will mark an historic break with half a century of strict government control of print media content," Reporters Without Borders said in a statement.

"Reporters Without Borders nonetheless has reservations about the measure, because it should apply to all categories of media and because of concern at the possibility that other, inappropriate measures will be adopted as an alternative form of post-publication censorship."

It called for the end of the Press Scrutiny and Registry Division, noting that its dissolution was announced last October but never carried out.

"This is huge," said Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn, director of Southeast Asia programs for Freedom House, a Washington-based advocacy group. "But you have to understand that Freedom House ranked Burma -- in terms of press freedom and civil and political liberties -- as (among) countries that we deemed the worst of the worst in terms of political and press freedom. ... The bar was pretty low to begin with."

She added, "This is not a done deal yet."

Monday's announcement comes after President Thein Sein's commitment to introducing political reforms in Myanmar since assuming leadership last year.

In recent weeks, sectarian violence in the western part of the country has tested the efforts of Sein's administration to seek reconciliation with Myanmar's different ethnic groups and move the country toward more democratic governance.

CNN's Licia Yee and Andrew Henstock in Hong Kong contributed to this report

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