Myanmar has crossed an important milestone in its gradual and calibrated moves towards democracy. Last week, the government announced the abolition of pre-publication censorship. This means that for the first time in the half century since the military seized power, editors are exempt from submitting material to the Press Scrutiny and Registrations Department for approval before printing. After the decision to release democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in 2010, this is the most far-reaching reform that the Thein Sein government has undertaken in a system that still remains heavily dominated by the military and its interests. Myanmar is way down the list in press freedom rankings. It has had the reputation for jailing journalists on the charge of threatening national peace whenever it sensed the slightest challenge to its authority. But in the past two years, alongside other reforms, the government had begun visibly to relax its iron grip on the media, allowing coverage of previously taboo topics such as Ms Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy. Last week, the government postponed the formation of a press council after journalists protested that it was a censor in disguise. Since June 2011, more than 200 publications covering sports, the economy, health, science and technology and other non-political subjects had already been exempted from censorship, and restrictions were also removed on thousands of internet sites, including YouTube. Now, all publications have been exempted.
Does this mean the Myanmar media is now free to report on the anti-Rohingya violence in Rakhine without fear or favour? Unfortunately, the answer is no. The government has not yet done away with the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act, imposed soon after the Ne Win coup. Though 38 directives and 20 instructions in the Act have been revoked, journalists will have to abide by the remaining 13 directives and six instructions. Among the subjects that remain on the sensitive list are corruption in the Army, and foreign policy. The government recently warned against reportage of the communal clashes in Rakhine. In blacking out the events, Myanmar may have contributed to the misinformation that is reverberating right across the region, with some negative consequences for India. This, alongside its stubborn position that the Rohingyas are not its citizens, and the absence of a credible democratic voice from Myanmar on the events in Rakhine — Ms Suu Kyi has yet to make a proper statement — have regrettably taken some of the shine off Myanmar’s otherwise praiseworthy political reforms.