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When Myanmar emerged last year from army rule, state censors started to loosen their powerful grip, allowing newspapers to report freely on what had been unthinkable, from the views of opposition politicians to allegations of government corruption.
But as sectarian violence rages between majority Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas in western Rakhine state, the old ways are returning.
Censorship is creeping back, raising questions about whether the pre-screening of copy will be dropped, as the government has said.
“We cannot write whatever we want,” said Maung Wuntha, a prominent author and journalist who was jailed for publishing work deemed subversive by the former regime.
“We can only write when the press scrutiny board approves… and despite that, we were warned,” he said, referring to government warnings about stories on the unrest.
The unrest is a sensitive issue in Myanmar. The Rohingyas are not recognised as one of Myanmar’s numerous ethnic groups and their presence is contested by many.
State media has said a five-day rampage of rioting in Rakhine state last week killed at least 21 people. What started it remains a mystery but it seems to have stemmed from last month’s rape and murder of a Buddhist Rakhine woman, allegedly by three Muslims who are now on trial.
The incident led to calls for retribution that were answered by Buddhist vigilantes, who lynched 10 Muslims with no ties to the alleged killers.
Myanmar’s censors leapt back into action when the Snapshot news journal published without its permission a photograph, still doing the rounds on the internet, purporting to show the body of the woman who was raped and murdered.
The chief minister for Yangon, Myint Swe, issued a warning recently to journalists with private media that they faced nine years in prison if they used inflammatory language that could incite violence and endanger stability.
Ironically, the government may have broken its own rules when state media reported the deaths of the 10 Muslims using the word “kalar”, a derogatory term for people of South Asian descent in Myanmar.
Swe’s words appear to have been heeded, with self-censorship taking a hold in the media.
“Everyone was disgruntled at the warning,” said a Yangon-based editor, who declined to be identified, adding that most domestic media had written little about the violence.
Thousands of unfiltered opinions and comments about the unrest, many inflammatory, have appeared on the web forums of news journals and on Facebook pages as nationalist anger runs wild.
Some people, journalists included, have taken aim at exiled media such as the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) and foreign media organisations that were praised for their truth-telling during the military’s oppressive 49-year reign.
Now they are being accused of bias towards stateless Rohingyas, whom many Buddhists blame for instigating the arson, rioting and machete attacks in Rakhine.
Wuntha warned of trouble ahead if Facebook pages or websites carrying inflammatory content became more widely viewed, but censorship wasn’t the answer, he said.
“I don’t believe you should restrict them or censor them. The readers should be rational and use their own reasoning to differentiate between right and wrong,” Wuntha said. – Reuters