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Burma moves to abolish media censorship

The red pen retired? Really? That seems to be the essence of the news out of Burma today; that finally direct media censorship has officially ended. Sounds good. Perhaps too good to be true.

In Burma, just a few months ago, we watched as the young journalists and editors kept amazing restraint as they submitted stories to official government censors and then got them back covered in red ink. The practice was among the most onerous in the world and the censorship was so strict it meant newspapers could only publish weekly, not daily. It took THAT long for the censors to sift through every single sentence. But the stories and words the censors scratched out on the proofs were a bit unpredictable.

In the silky late night heat of March, we stood with editor Thomas Kean of the Myanmar Times as he was on a deadline. He shook his head at the fresh red marks from the censors.

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Nope to references to poverty. Nope to suggestions of youth dissatisfaction. Even the word CRITICISM was too sensitive. But there have been the odd surprises too.  A story about the pain of farmers was accepted. Then, these were viewed as tiny triumphs; signs among many that Burma was changing, opening up.
One of the world's most oppressive regimes has been slowly reaching out. Burma's legacy has been one of vicious repression but its rulers have realized they need the worlds' business and the worlds' business truly wants in on what Burma has to offer.

So, they are opting for what, on the surface, seems a kinder, gentler approach. This is good, but there's always a catch.
Back in March, the old and young alike embraced the new freedoms but cast suspicious eyes on what was happening. Their fear has been that they would be tricked into fully expressing themselves and then policies would be reversed--and they'd be severely punished.

It's a human rights horror movie that's played out before. Now, too, some suspicions.

Direct censorship may be over, and this is a key step, but journalists are far from safe. They are still subject to jail terms if they jeopardize whatever the rulers deem to be a matter of national security.

Rules are still murky and still threatening.