A step toward democracy: Privately owned newspapers return to Myanmar
In Myanmar the state has monopolized the daily press since the 1960s, but on Monday, privately owned daily newspapers will hit the streets once again. The change is part of reform efforts by President Thein Sein.
Khin Maung Win/AP
For most people in Myanmar, it will be a novelty when privately run daily newspapers hit the streets on Monday. Many weren't even born when the late dictator Ne Win imposed a state monopoly on the daily press in the 1960s.
But for 81-year-old Khin Maung Lay, the rebirth of daily newspapers is like a second lease on life. He is chief editor of Golden Fresh Land, one of four dailies going on sale Monday as Myanmar takes another step in its march toward democracy.
He's old enough to recall there once had been a big and vibrant daily press in the Burmese, English, Indian and Chinese languages in the period of parliamentary democracy after Myanmar, known then as Burma, won independence from Britain in 1948.
Khin Maung Lay worked as a senior newsman at the Burmese language Mogyo daily before it was driven out of business by government pressure in 1964.
Now as chief editor of Golden Fresh Land — the name sounds less awkward in the original Burmese — he heads a team of young journalists he recruited from various weeklies, who have only the briefest of acquaintances with the concept of a free press, having grown up under the military government that ruled for five decades. They are up against some media behemoths and papers belonging to the country's top political parties.
Khin Maung Lay acknowledges there are innumerable challenges ahead, but said he is ready to face them "in the name of freedom of press." He's well acquainted with the cutting edge of the concept — he went to jail three times under Ne Win, including a three-year stretch in "protective custody," a catch-all phrase the military regime used as a reason for imprisoning critics.
"I foresee several hurdles along the way," he said. "However, I am ready to run the paper in the spirit of freedom and professionalism taught by my peers during the good old days."
The newspaper renaissance is part of the reform efforts of President Thein Sein, who, after serving as prime minister in the previous military regime, took office in March 2011 as head of an elected civilian government. Political and economic liberalization were at the top of his agenda, in an effort to boost national development.
The press has been a major beneficiary. The government lifted censorship in August last year, allowing reporters to print material that would have been unthinkable under military rule.
It's not smooth sailing yet. The draconian 1962 Printing and Registration Act remains in place until a new media law is enacted. It carries a maximum seven-year prison term for failure to register and allows the government to revoke publishing licenses at any time.
The government announced in December that any Myanmar national wishing to publish a daily newspaper was welcome to apply and could begin publishing on April 1.
There were nearly two dozen applications, and Golden Fresh Land was one of 16 to win approval. Others include dailies to be put out by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party and Thein Sein's ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party.
The Voice Daily is making its debut Monday, issued by the same group that has published a popular weekly since 2004.
"I am very excited that we are finally printing daily editions. It is a dream come true because that was our objective when we began publishing the Voice Journal in 2004," 42-year-old editor-in-chief Kyaw Min Shwe said Sunday, as reporters hustled around his newsroom to put out their first edition.
He said the established government newspapers have an advantage in terms of money and distribution, but "I can say with absolute confidence that we can compete with government papers in terms of content and quality of news."
Most coverage of local and national news in the state press is little more than the equivalent of government press releases, typically reporting on less-than-riveting topics such as the names of all the officials who attended the inauguration of a new bridge. Opinion pieces invariably reflect conservative positions that seem decades behind the times.
Aware of its vulnerability, the English-language state paper, the New Light of Myanmar, is seeking a joint venture partner to help with a makeover.
The entry of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, called the Union Daily, plans to make use of its strong financial base. The pro-military party, which holds a strong majority in parliament, is backed by many tycoons. Chief editor Win Tin said the paper will be distributed free of charge for the first 10 days beginning Monday.
"We are financially strong and we have many experienced people," he said, adding that the party will have its own separate propaganda sheet and that the newspaper will not be a mouthpiece for it.
Strong competition will come from savvy big media groups who say they will launch later.
"We need more time for preparation. It is quite challenging for the reporters to switch from weeklies to dailies," said Nyein Nyein Naing, executive editor of the 7-Day weekly news journal.
"We need more time for preparation and we have to have test runs before we start the daily edition," said Dr. Than Htut Aung, CEO of the popular Eleven media group, which plans to launch The Daily Eleven on May 3.
"I will print my first daily edition on May 3, Press Freedom Day, because it is very symbolic," he said.