* Journalists no longer need to submit reports to censors
* Self-censorship likely as reporters take cautious approach
* Privately dailies still banned
(Adds U.S. reaction, paragraphs 10-11)
By Aung Hla Tun
YANGON, Aug 20 Myanmar abolished direct media
censorship on Monday, the latest dramatic reform by its
quasi-civilian regime, but journalists face other formidable
restrictions including a ban on private daily newspapers and a
pervasive culture of self-censorship.
Under the new rules, journalists no longer have to submit
reports to state censors before publication, ending a practice
strictly enforced during nearly half a century of military rule
that ended in March last year.
"This is a step in the right direction and a good approach,
but questions of press freedom will remain," said Aung Thu
Nyein, a senior associate at the Vahu Development Institute, a
Thailand-based think tank.
"We can expect the government to still try to assert some
control, probably using national security to keep the media in
check," he added.
Previously, every song, book, cartoon, news report and
planned piece of art required approval by teams of censors
rooting out political messages and criticisms of one of Asia's
most repressive governments.
Changes have gathered steam since June last year when the
Ministry of Information decided to allow about half of Myanmar's
privately run weekly journals and monthly magazines to publish
without submitting page proofs to a censorship board in advance.
On Monday, restrictions were lifted on the remaining 80
political and six religious journals, said Tint Swe, head of the
press censorship board at the Ministry of Information.
Over the past year, Myanmar, also known as Burma, has
introduced the most sweeping reforms in the former British
colony since a 1962 military coup. A semi-civilian government,
stacked with former generals, has allowed elections, eased rules
on protests and freed dissidents among other changes.
Newspapers have since been testing the boundaries, often
putting opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on front pages and
giving coverage to government critics. Editors say this was
unthinkable before the middle of last year.
The United States, which has quickly improved ties with
Myanmar as the reforms gather pace, said the end of direct
censorship was another positive step.
"That said, the Censorship Board itself has not been
eradicated, which obviously is a step that we would like to see
the government take," State Department spokeswoman Victoria
Nuland told a news briefing.
But while the authorities can no longer count on the same
strictly controlled media that was ranked 169th of 179 nations
last year in a global press freedom index by anti-censorship
group Reporters Without Borders, significant restrictions
Privately run daily newspapers are still not permitted,
leaving a monopoly to state-run papers filled with propaganda.
It was only last year that they dropped back-page banners
attacking Western media for "sowing hatred".
Asked about the chance of ending a ban on private dailies,
Tint Swe said: "We can say it has become closer than before. It
could happen after enacting the necessary media law."
Journalists also said they still feared their reports could
fall foul of various laws on the statute book, especially when
covering issues deemed sensitive to national security.
In June, for instance, Reporters without Borders criticised
a threat by Yangon chief minister Myint Swe to prosecute news
media covering sectarian violence in the country's western
Rakhine state, saying it highlighted "the fragility of recent
improvements in media freedom".
"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.
Remaining Orwellian laws include the Electronic Transaction
Law, enacted in April 2004. It says "whoever receives or sends
or distributes any information relating to secrets of the
security of the state" can face up to 15 years in prison.
The definition of state secrets has been applied loosely in
the past. At one point, it included any reference to the amount
of money in circulation in Myanmar. Prominent activists such as
Buddhist monk Shin Gambira were jailed under that law during a
2007 crackdown on monk-led protests.
With that law in place, media will still be choosing their
words carefully, likely adopting the kind of self-censorship in
place in other parts of Southeast Asia. In Singapore, for
instance, media is usually careful to avoid displeasing the
government and not falling afoul of strict libel laws.
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.
"I believe we also need to promote a code of ethics among
journalists," he said.
(Additional reporting by Martin Petty in Yangon; Writing by
Alan Raybould; Editing by Jason Szep, Robert Birsel and Philip