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At long last Myanmar's muzzled media gets to breathe free

Friday, 28 December 2012 - 5:57pm IST | Place: Yangon | Agency: Reuters
At present, only state-controlled newspapers, mostly considered dull, propaganda-filled mouthpieces of the government, are allowed to publish on a daily basis.

Myanmar will allow private daily newspapers from April next year, the government announced on Friday, a big leap forward for a country that had barely any press freedom under its decades of military dictatorship. Before the military seized power in a 1962 coup, there were more than a dozen local private dailies in multiple languages.

At present, only state-controlled newspapers, mostly considered dull, propaganda-filled mouthpieces of the government, are allowed to publish on a daily basis. "We can say it is the beginning of the third and final stage of the media reforms in the country," a senior Information Ministry official told Reuters, asking not to be named.

"We will accept applications in February and I expect there will be about a dozen applicants." The decision comes as part of an astonishing relaxation of laws governing the media in Myanmar, among the most dramatic reforms introduced by Thein Sein's quasi-civilian government since it came to power 19 months ago. The regime it replaced demanded every song, book, cartoon, news report and planned artwork be approved by teams of paranoid censors rooting out hidden political messages and criticisms of the junta.

"We do welcome this news," said Wai Phyo, chief editor of the Weekly Eleven journal, one of four publications owned by the Eleven Media Group. "We've been waiting for it for some time." The relaxation of controls started in June last year, when the Information Ministry allowed about half of Myanmar's privately run weekly journals and monthly magazines to publish without submitting page proofs to censors in advance.

Four months ago, the ministry scrapped all censorship and started giving a makeover to the state dailies, which routinely chided democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi while praising generals who kept Myanmar in dire poverty and fear for decades. Despite the changes, a degree of self-censorship is expected to remain as long as Orwellian laws like the Electronic Transaction Law exist, which threatens jail terms of 15 years for revealing "state secrets".

That term has been applied very loosely and at one point, it included any reference by journalists to the amount of money in circulation in Myanmar. Veteran journalist Pho Thaukkyar, a member of an interim Press Council appointed to draw up a new media law, said daily independent papers would be a new thing for most Burmese. "Will have to reintroduce the people to the taste of independent private dailies," he said.

(Writing by Martin Petty)


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