KUWAIT CITY (AP) _ Kuwait on Sunday lifted formal pre-publication censorship Sunday of the emirate's newspapers, in effect since 1986, but retained the right to close down papers that print objectionable reports.

The decision, announced by Information Minister Badr al-Yacoub, does not affect broadcast media, which are still run by the government.

The move followed adoption by journalists of their own code that asks reporters to refrain from showing disrespect to their heads of state, or to interfere with internal affairs of ''sisterly and friendly nations.''

Al-Yacoub told The Associated Press the government censors would not be going to the seven local newspapers Sunday night.

''The editors-in-chief now take responsibility for what their papers publish,'' said al-Yacoub, adding that he was sure Kuwaiti journalists ''fully understand their role'' in rebuilding the country.

''This is the first step toward democracy since liberation,'' said Ahmed al-Rabe'i, a columnist and a prominent member of the Kuwaiti opposition.

''I hope this will be followed by a wave of political relaxation that will lead to forming a new government that, in turn, can guarantee honest parliamentary elections,'' said al-Rabe'i, whose columns in the independent paper Al-Qabas have been censored repeatedly.

Since the Gulf War ended the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, opposition activists have pressed for greater democracy.

The emir responded with a promise to hold elections next fall, but so far, activists have failed to find an issue that electrifies the populace.

The editor-in-chief of Al-Qabas, Mohammad al-Saqer, said the lifting of censorship was welcome, but called the step incomplete as long as the information minister had the right to take post-publication action against newspapers, including closing them down.

Censorship was imposed on the press after the emir, Sheik Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah, dissolved Parliament in 1986.

Censorship has eased since the war. Articles critical of government policies have been getting past the censors. But editors said articles on stateless Arabs, bad debts and security have been banned by the censors lately.