YANGON — Myanmar is poised to adopt a new media law that could sweep away half a century of heavy-handed censorship, as an increasingly impatient press cautiously test the boundaries of newly-won freedoms.
In perhaps the most eye-catching reform among a raft of changes in the country formerly known as Burma, reports on democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi are no longer taboo as the new government moves towards allowing a free press.
Journalists have also been released from prison and the country crept up media watchdog Reporters Without Borders' rankings last year -- to 169 out of 179 -- amid a lightening of one of the world's most draconian scrutiny regimes.
Now news editors are eagerly waiting to be released from the shackles of pre-publication censorship, with the promised abolition of the information ministry's Press Scrutinisation and Registration Department (PSRD).
"In the parliament... everybody agreed that the censorship board should be closed," Ye Htut, director general at the ministry, told AFP, adding that unless the draft media law is altered the department will be closed.
The draft has not been made public, but some media organisations have been invited to submit proposals.
Privately-run English-language weekly the Myanmar Times said its 11 articles cover areas such as journalists' rights, professional ethics, and how publishers and distributors will be registered.
Tint Swe, the deputy director general of the PSRD, said the draft law was on the attorney general's desk, according to a report in the Myanmar Times.
It is not expected to be adopted during the current parliament session -- dominated by the first budget since the junta relinquished power to a nominally-civilian regime last year -- but he said the law would be passed in 2012.
"After that there won't be any more censorship," Tint Swe said.
Myanmar, a military dictatorship for nearly half a century, has long sought to stifle the press, creating an information void, where momentous events were simply ignored or whispered in private in a swirl of rumour.
The new government has surprised observers with a number of positive moves including a major release of political prisoners.
A key sign of change has been the rehabilitation of Aung San Suu Kyi -- the junta's public enemy number one, she was released from house arrest soon after controversial 2010 elections and has since been allowed to launch a bid to enter parliament.
Prominent coverage of the Nobel prize-winning opposition leader was virtually unheard of until last September, when reporters were suddenly given permission to write her name in the paper.
"We're not afraid anymore to go to the office," said one journalist, who still asked to speak on condition of anonymity.
The weekly Eleven News ran a photograph of President Thein Sein and Suu Kyi, dubbing them both "Person of the Year" on January 4.
Two weeks later it pushed even further, publishing photographs of prominent released political prisoners, with a large caption: "Freedom from fear", echoing the title of a famous essay by Suu Kyi.
"As journalists, we need to expand the freedom of press and maintain the political momentum on both sides, the government and the opposition," said Than Htut Aung, chairman and chief executive of Eleven Media Group, which has a number of news and sport titles in Myanmar.
Overseas, exiled media groups, such as the Irrawaddy, Mizzima agency and multimedia broadcaster Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) have also been watching developments closely.
Irrawaddy editor Aung Zaw is back in Myanmar this week for the first time in 20 years, but there is as yet no move to give exile media permission to open offices in Myanmar.
"It sounds like the Information Minister Kyaw Hsan is very reluctant to see exile media sweep back in," said Francis Wade, head of the English language site at DVB.
He said while authorities have apparently lifted blocks on websites of previously banned overseas media, they have increased Internet surveillance "and the means to monitor the users has been stepped up dramatically".
Yangon-based media groups, eyeing future profits in a country where people read widely, are desperate for new print licences which would allow them to publish daily and so take on the staid, official New Light of Myanmar.
According to a media insider, up to six licences could be granted in the next few months. And the ministry of information admits that the issue is being debated.
"The role of state media will also change. In the past, under the military government, it was a one-party system, the role of state media was only to inform about the government's policies," the ministry's Ye Htut said.
"Now, we're in a democratic system... we have to write about issues that affect people."
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