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Asia

One step closer to press freedom in Myanmar

Myanmar has abolished direct media censorship in a further step towards democratization. Observers, however, say there is still a long way to press freedom.

Analysts and human rights organizations welcomed Myanmar's announcement to abolish pre-publication censorship on Monday.

"The lifting of pre-publication censorship is a significant step towards press freedom and further liberalization in Myanmar," Marco Bünte from the Hamburg-based German Institute for Global Affairs told DW.

Johann Behr from Reporters without Borders also said it was an "important step" but made clear that "it does not mean censorship in Myanmar has been completely abolished."

'A double-edged sword'

A soldier patrols through a neighbourhood that was burnt during recent violence in Sittwe

Ethnic riots in Sittwe were not reported about in the Myanmar press

Behr also pointed out that the censors had been hard at work in recent weeks to ensure there was no reporting about the ethnic riots between the Buddhist majority and the Muslim Rohingya minority in the northwestern state of Rakhine.

"The past weeks have shown that the authorities are very, very vigilant regarding articles about inland security," Behr said.

"Press freedom can be a double-edged sword," added Bünte. "The media could fan hatred between ethnic groups and lead to violence continuing or even escalating."

He said that the Rohingya had been openly hounded on Myanmar's social media networks.

"However, restrictions should of course not be used to suppress reporting altogether," Bünte said, adding that there had to be a balance.

Reforms are urgent

Observers know that it will take some time before there is press freedom based on fundamental ethical standards in Myanmar. "The authorities will tell journalists that they have to bear responsibility," explained Bünte. "However, because of decades without any press freedom at all, journalists will be faced with difficult questions about what exact responsibility they have to bear."

President Thein Sein made the first step towards reforms in January 2011 when he announced an end to censorship after 47 years. Later on that year, pre-publication censorship was lifted for certain subjects, including sports, news, entertainment, health and science and technology. Since then the press laws have been revised and the creation of a press council has been announced.

"These are all steps in the right direction that enable the local media to regulate themselves," said Behr. "But it remains to be seen whether the planned press council will really be independent," he said skeptically, pointing out that the government was fickle in its attitude towards press freedom.

Bünte was more confident: "Because of the return of journalists who were in exile, there is a great potential to drive the democratization of Myanmar forward," he said.

Journalists participate in a protest along the streets of Yangon

Will such protests one day be unnecessary?

However, he did add that many journalists were critical of the new press laws, especially of the fact that they were based on the old ones.

Journalists operate in gray zones

It remains to be seen what kind of practical impact the abolishment of pre-publication censorship will have in Myanmar. Some fear the newly-won freedoms could lead to self-censorship because the legal framework remains unclear.

"Journalists know that pre-publication censorship has been abolished but they still don't know how far they can go as individuals - how independent they really are," said Behr.

This is especially true of controversial subjects. "This is the crunch. At some point corruption and conflicts, especially human rights abuses in the minority regions, will be exposed," said Behr.

For the time being, the risks involved remain unforeseeable.

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