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Myanmar ends press censorship in latest shift from oppression

YANGON, Myanmar -- Myanmar abolished press censorship on Monday, the latest in a series of dramatic economic and political reforms by the quasi-civilian regime and one that carries risks for its ability to manage change.

The government's announcement marks a U-turn from the oppressive policies of the military that ran Myanmar for almost 50 years until March 2011. The military government's censors not only kept tight control over the media but monitored every song, cartoon, book and piece of art for subversive content.

After lifting some restrictions on publications in June last year, the authorities on Monday extended press freedom to the remaining 80 political and six religious journals.

'Great day for all journalists in Myanmar'
"Any publication inside the country will not have to get prior permission from us before they are published, effective today," said Tint Swe, head of the press censorship board at the Ministry of Information.

He explained the move to editors and publishers at his department earlier on Monday.

"From now on, our department will just carry out registering publications for keeping them at the national archives and issuing a license to printers and publishers," he said.

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"This is a great day for all journalists in Myanmar, who have labored under these odious restrictions for far too many years," an editor at a Yangon weekly publication who preferred not to be named told AFP.

"It is also another encouraging example of the progress that the country is making under (President) Thein Sein's government," the editor told AFP.

In 2011-12, the international news media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders ranked Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, number 169 out of 179 countries in press freedom.

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The Committee to Protect Journalists has ranked Myanmar as the seventh-most censored country in the world.

In its January 2012 report, Reporters Without Borders noted that Myanmar had "showed signs of beginning to carry out reforms including partial amnesties and a reduction in prior censorship, but it remained largely under the control of an authoritarian government run by former members of the military junta reinvented as civilian politicians."

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Earlier this month, two journals were briefly suspended for publishing articles without prior approval from censors, prompting journalists to take to the streets in protest.

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State-run newspapers only
Privately-run daily newspapers in Myanmar are still not permitted, leaving a monopoly to state-run newspapers that have changed little in style or substance since the military was in control.

Asked about the chance of private dailies being allowed to start up, Tint Swe said: "We can say it has become closer than before. It could happen after enacting the necessary media law."

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Journalists welcomed the lifting of restrictions but some were worried their reports could still fall foul of various laws on the statute book.

"It's a big improvement on the past. I do welcome it but there will be more responsibilities on the editors since there are some existing laws under which action can be taken against journalists for their writing," said Wai Phyo, chief editor of the Weekly Eleven journal.

Zaw Htike, a senior reporter and secretary of the Myanmar Journalists Network, which has more than 200 members, had a similar view, and added that journalists would now have to take more responsibility for what they wrote.

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"I believe we also need to promote a code of ethics among journalists," he said.

Some censorship remains
Still, film censorship remains in place, an information ministry official told AFP. In addition, TV journalists "self censor" by asking for instructions about sensitive news, the official told AFP.

Shawn Crispin, the Committee to Protect Journalist's Southeast Asia representative in Bangkok, told The Associated Press that "if the government is sincere in ending pre-publication censorship, it would represent a significant step forward for press freedom in Burma."

But Crispin also told the AP that if press laws were not reformed as well, "then all of these promises can be easily rolled back if they feel a free press threatens government security."

Reuters contributed to this report.

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