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"Free press is the key to Myanmar reform"

A man looks at online video portal YouTube at an internet cafe in Yangon September 16, 2011. Myanmar lifted bans on prominent news websites on Thursday, including some run by critics of the army-dominated government, and unblocked YouTube, the latest signs of possible reforms in one of Asia's most reclusive states. - Reuters Photo

BANGKOK: Army-dominated Myanmar must end “draconian”reporting laws and free jailed journalists to give credibility to promised political reform, a media rights group said on Tuesday.

Myanmar's media remains among the world's most restricted, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which said that the press operates within a climate of fear despite new nominally civilian rule.

The CPJ said the regime, which came to power after controversial November elections, had done little to ease restrictions, while two journalists have been given lengthy jail sentences since the poll.

In a report on press freedoms in the country, the CPJ called for the establishment of a United Nations-led commission of inquiry into war crimes in Myanmar, also known as Burma, including the jailing and torture of journalists.

“The government's promise of reform is welcome, yet censorship in Burma remains arbitrary, intensive and highly restrictive,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ senior Southeast Asia representative.

“Legal reform to ensure press freedom would lend much-needed credibility to the government's claims of democratic change in Burma.

“Draconian laws restricting reporting must be abolished and imprisoned journalists must be immediately released.”

Censors reject media stories under a “wide-reaching” number of banned topics, the CPJ found, while Internet surveillance and harsh communications laws are used to target undercover reporters for media in exile.

“Uncensored reporting from within Burma is crucial for assessing whether the government's promise of democratic reform is rhetoric or reality,” said Crispin, adding that exile media remains a “vital” source of information.

Myanmar's government has appeared to want to improve its image recently with talk of reform and by initiating dialogue with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. But the US and UN have urged more concrete measures.

Last week, Internet users were able to see banned media websites for the first time, including the BBC and exiled media organisations such as the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB).

But the move, which was not officially announced, came on the same week that a court added an extra decade to the sentence of a journalist jailed over his work for DVB. He now faces 18 years in prison.

CPJ said that there are at least 14 reporters and media-support workers in prison in Myanmar, but also referred to DVB claims that 17 of its undercover video journalists are behind bars.

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