Myanmar media is not totally free yet despite the government's announcement on Monday that it was lifting censorship on all publications--including those covering controversial topics like politics and religion, said one of the country's top media executives.
"There are just changes in procedure but the rules are still there," said Than Htut Aung, chairman and CEO of Eleven Media Group, in an interview with Asia News Network on Tuesday. By rules, he was referring to the 1962 Press Act that, among others, imposes a maximum seven-year jail term for journalists who violate it.
"You still cannot publish what you want to write, freely," he added. Eleven Media publishes four weeklies on news and sports with a combined circulation of 500,000. It was named "Media of the Year" by Reporters Without Borders in 2011. It has also entered into a partnership with Thailand's Nation Multimedia Group.
Than said this development will give rise to a culture of self-censorship among editors and journalists in order to skirt the law. He further noted that the censors board has not been abolished and still exists hovering like a dark cloud on the local media.
"The burden now is on the owners and editors to take more responsibility towards media ethics," he said. But even then, some officials in the information ministry, he said "misinterpret" and "misuse" media ethics according to whim, often citing stories with anonymous sources as unethical.
He explained that local publications often cite sources who wish to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal especially if they are talking about controversial issues.
"Everybody is afraid to mention names so they cannot easily answer the questions or we cannot mention the source. We have to use anonymous sources," he said. "Some of the conservatives [in the government] point to unnamed sources and tell the editors this is unethical."
Monday's announcement was the latest in a series of reforms introduced since the new government took office last year. The first phase involved lifting censorship on publications involving the arts, health, technology and sports, followed by economy, crime and law. The third phase covered media dealing with education, and finally, on politics, religion and history.
Than likened the 1962 Press Act to some of Singapore's laws like the Sedition Act or the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, but with more severe punishments. He also noted that aside from the censors board, local media have to contend with the state-appointed press council whose "rules are even worse".
"We have been struggling for many years now and we have to fight back," he says, adding that he has been a victim of smear campaign targeting not only him but his family. This he said was due to the perceived influence that his media company has and controversial stories that they carry. He tells the young journalists working in his company to "be sincere and loyal to [their] country and profession". Myanmar has imposed tight control over the media for almost five decades and journalists have met the latest development with caution.