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Myanmar grapples with the weight of new-found ‘free media’

A Buddhist monk reads a newspaper outside the Jivita Dhana Free Hospital for Buddhist Monks on Monday, Nov. 8, 2010, in Yangon, Myanmar.

Khin Maung Win/AP

Something remarkable happened in Myanmar this week. For the first time in 48 years, newspapers and magazines were allowed to go to print without first having a censor approve and edit their articles.

The pace of change in the country better known as Burma has been so fast that it can be difficult to appreciate. Less than two years ago, the country was still ruled by a junta, a situation that seemed depressingly eternal. Even the country's first elections, held in November 2010, seemed designed only to entrench military rule. But the process that gerrymandered vote began now seems to have unstoppable momentum.

President Thein Sein, an ex-general who shed his uniform to become the country's first nominally civilian leader, continues to surprise and impress. While Monday's announcement that "pre-publication" censorship had ended was greeted with widespread applause, the censors have actually been standing down for the better part of a year now.

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Journalists who were once forced to write about their country from exile are now welcome to travel to Myanmar and to interview its leaders. Reporters for the U.S. government-funded Democratic Voice of Burma, who risked jail to tell the world what was happening as the military crushed a monk-led uprising just five years ago, can now do their work openly. One of the main opposition news websites,, now has a Rangoon office and prints a magazine distributed inside Myanmar, M-ZINE. Photos of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi – long banned – and articles that report approvingly on her National League for Democracy are now daily fare.

(Another positive: foreign journalists who once had to sneak around Myanmar on tourist visas – as The Globe and Mail had to do as recently as 2011 – are now welcomed and given remarkable access to decision-makers.)

Local journalists say the battle for true media freedom in Myanmar is far from over. While they no longer have to submit the articles to the state's Press Scrutiny and Registration Board, they can still be called on the carpet afterward if what they write offends the powerful. Articles still have to meet 16 guidelines, including a stipulation that media shouldn't harm national security or "the dignity of the state." Journalists say the issue of corruption – a sensitive topic given the obvious wealth the military elite has compiled in an otherwise very poor country – remains a particularly taboo topic.

And despite the reforms, the Press Scrutiny and Registration Board still exists. The Electronics Act, which was used to prosecute and jail bloggers and "citizen journalists" during and after the failed 2007 Saffron Revolution, also remains on the books.

"We knew the end [of pre-publication censorship] was coming, so it isn't such a big step. But compared to what the country has gone through in the past decades… I'd say we have a free media now," Rangoon-based political analyst Khin Zaw Win said in an interview conducted by e-mail. "The next move is up to the media itself. Will most of them be responsible, ethical, non-partisan?"

So far, the untethered media has struggled to grasp its new responsibility. Some journals published dangerously inflammatory material – including the photo of a woman who had been raped and murdered – in order to sell more newspaper. Such carelessness undoubtedly helped ignite the deadly ethnic violence that has gripped the country's western state of Rakhine.

"We will be able to write news stories more freely as there is no more scrutiny over our writing," magazine editor Thiha Saw told The Irrawaddy website, which, for now, remains based in neighbouring Thailand. "But at the same, the editors will have to take more responsibility for their publications."

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