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Censors lighten their touch on Myanmar's media

Myanmar's press has long been heavily restricted. But as the government promotes reforms, articles about just-released political prisoners and upcoming elections are getting into print.

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Before elections, the parliament is slated to discuss the possibility of a new media law during the coming weeks – the next set of hoped-for changes in a reforming Myanmar.

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Until now, none of Myanmar’s recent media reforms have been fortified with actual amendments to existing legislation.

In the small, fan-cooled first-floor office of Myanmar Dhana magazine, editor Thiha Saw says official reform would be a major leap for media. “Hopefully the government will scrap the censor, they have said they will do so.”

A journalist from Myanmar Post, again asking not to be named, said he has concerns about some of the broad outlines of the proposed media law. So far, he says, “it does not make clear what can be published online."

Mr. Thiha Saw says, “We have to play some kind of guessing game, as we don't yet know what will be in the law.”

Publishers say an ideal law would drop censorship, and also allow daily newspapers in Myanmar, where newspapers can publish only once a week at the moment. 

“It will be a challenge for our resources, but one we are eager to face,” says Thiha Saw, who also publishes a weekly news journal called Open News.

Khin Maung Swe, head of the opposition National Democratic Force (NDF), stressed that daily newspapers could help people in remote rural areas know more about what was happening in their country.

On top of that, because the market is restricted to weeklies, they are something of a niche product, and relatively expensive.  If the law is changed to allow dailies, it would mean publishers could produce more, sell more, have a wider reach, and hence, presumably, price them more cheaply.

"Right now, the weekly journals only sell in the cities and towns, and they are too expensive," says Mr. Khin Maung Swe. "Perhaps daily papers could sell more widely and for a lower price that people can afford, like 100 or 150 kyat [about 15 cents]."

More news freedom

BBC and VOA Myanmar language services have typically been denied access to the country in the past, but both had representatives at a rare media conference held in Yangon earlier this week.

And in another indication that the Myanmar's media is becoming freer –  there is talk of the possible return of exiled journalists and publications run by activists who fled repression at home. 

In the past, Myanmar's authorities jailed journalists working undercover in Myanmar for exiled media groups such as Democratic Voice of Burma.

Now, Mizzima, a New Delhi-based news service focused on Myanmar, is in discussions with the Myanmar authorities about opening a bureau in the country.

“It is good if they come back, as it shows the situation for media here is improving,” says Myint Kyaw. 

Thiha Saw cautions that even after the proposed reforms, Myanmar is unlikely to have an unfettered press. “There will still be some government controls here, despite the changes taking place,” he says. "We will have more press freedom here, but it will not be like the US or the UK."

Why is Myanmar making these changes?  5 countries with the longest ongoing US sanctions

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