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Censors lighten their touch on Myanmar's media

Myanmar's press has long been heavily restricted. But as the government promotes reforms, articles about just-released political prisoners and upcoming elections are getting into print.

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Tomas Ojea Quintana, UN special envoy on human rights in Myanmar, reads his statement during a news conference before his departure at Yangon International Airport on Sunday.

Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters

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Ko Ko Gyi unrolls a copy of the Messenger, one of 30 privately owned news magazines in Myanmar (Burma), and points – with an expression of disbelief – to a prominent picture of himself on the front page.

“I never imagined a Burmese paper could have a cover story with a full-page photo of me,” he says, holding up the magazine during an interview at one of Yangon's many tea shops.

Mr. Ko Ko Gyi was one of some 300 political prisoners released in a Jan. 13 amnesty by the government. The article goes into the details of what it was like for him to spend 18 years in jail after taking part in pro-democracy protests in Yangon in 1988. 

“It is not so long since such coverage would not have been possible here,” says U Myint Kyaw, editor of Yangon Press International, an online-only news start-up in the country's main city.

Since 1962, Myanmar’s dictatorship has jailed the opposition, beat up monks, denied aid to disaster victims, and run scorched-earth campaigns against ethnic minorities. For the past four years, it has been ranked among the world's five worst jailers of the press.  But in an about-face, Myanmar’s military-backed civilian government is taking some major steps toward democratization, including promising free and fair elections, calling for peace in the restive ethnic areas, and releasing hundreds of political prisoners. Now, the leashed media is starting to see the beginning of some loosening.

Despite the new freedoms – and a promise to replace the old law of "pre-censorship" with a new system under which publications will be "reviewed" after they hit the newsstands – the country's censors, known officially as the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department (PSRD), still require all publications to submit political news content to them for vetting prior to publication. 

At the Myanmar Times, the sole foreign-backed publication, an editor who asked not to be named, as reforms in Myanmar are still at the early stages, displayed a draft of the latest weekly edition, returned by the PSRD with red ink circling sections that could not be published. 

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