The tormentor-in-chief of Myanmar’s heavily censored media will put down his black marker pen for good in a month, signalling the end of one of the world’s most draconian press scrutiny regimes.
Tint Swe, head of the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department (PSRD), said he will release its iron grip on the country’s media in the latest significant reform for a country emerging from decades of repression.
“There will be no press scrutiny job from the end of June. There will be no monitoring of local journals and magazines,” he told AFP in an interview in his office in Yangon.
“I would say it is the right time rather than we are ready. When we have parliament and government working on democratic process, how can censorship work at the same time?,” he said.
Stifling pre-publication censorship — applied in the past to everything from newspapers to fairy tales and the winning lottery numbers — was one of the key symbols of junta-ruled Myanmar, where even seemingly innocuous details were scrubbed from public discussion.
Sweeping reforms under a new quasi-civilian government have seen a lighter touch from the once ubiquitous censors, with less controversial publications freed from scrutiny last year.
Editors across the news media are now eager to have the same freedom.
A more open climate has seen private weekly news publications publish an increasingly bold range of stories, including those about opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose very name was taboo in the past.
Tint Swe directed the PSRD for seven years, mercilessly changing headlines, slashing paragraphs or scrapping entire articles deemed critical of the military and its cronies.
“He had one of the worst jobs in Myanmar,” said an editor at a news weekly who requested anonymity. “He was pressured from above by ministers, officials and powerful business people to keep stories out and pressured from below by editors to keep stories in.”
In March 2011 the junta handed over power to former soldiers who have pushed reforms, initially pilloried as cosmetic by the West and the opposition but now seen as a step towards democracy by an international community that has begun to ease sanctions.
Within months after president Thein Sein took power, hundreds of political prisoners were released and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was offered a seat in the political mainstream.
Reporters jailed under the junta have also been freed from long prison sentences.
Some subjects have remained difficult to approach, particularly on-going fighting between the army and ethnic rebels in northern Kachin state.
But news organisations are clearly keen to push the boundaries.
In March, The Voice weekly said the Auditor-General’s Office had discovered misappropriations of funds and fraud in the ministries of mining, information, agriculture and industry.
The mining ministry filed a lawsuit against the journal. The case is still ongoing, but a court has already sided with the newspaper by saying it did not have to disclose the name of the journalist.
“When the political context got freer, people got freer to think and we, the censorship board, got headaches to adjust to it,” Tint Swe said, admitting the period was “sensitive” after many years of distrust.
Analysts have recently said that information minister Kyaw Hsan, who is seen as a hardliner, has been increasingly isolated within the reform-minded government. Some even believe he could soon be sidelined in an expected cabinet reshuffle.
The regime has also been working for several months on a draft press law.
Details have not been made public, but some media organisations have been invited to submit proposals. It should cover areas such as journalists’ rights, professional ethics, and how publishers and distributors will be registered.
According to some official sources, it may well be adopted at the next session of parliament in July, and will be accompanied by the creation of a Press Council.
“People say that the Press Council will be like the censorship department. This is wrong,” Tint Swe said, describing it mainly as a conciliatory body between journalists and the ministry.
The former army officer hinted that the dark days of censorship were behind Myanmar — the PSRD will be responsible for registering new publications and archiving, but it will no longer be a censorship body — and it is a development that he is clearly pleased with.
“It is the most auspicious news possible for everyone in the industry that the censor process is going to be abolished,” Tint Swe said.