YANGON – Privately owned daily newspapers hit Myanmar’s streets Monday for the first time in decades under new freedoms that represent a revolution for a media industry which was shackled under military rule.
Four Burmese-language titles — The Voice, The Golden Fresh Land, The Union and The Standard Time — made the transition from weeklies as new rules came into effect that swept away state media’s long monopoly on daily printing.
“We prepared for about six months to become a daily newspaper. We wanted to be part of this historical milestone,” said Aung Soe, an editor at The Voice.
Newsstands in Yangon reported an early morning rush by readers eager to witness the latest sweeping change in the country. “The Voice daily sold out soon after it arrived even though I ordered double the amount than other newspapers. People are keen to read private daily newspapers for the first time,” said vendor Phyu Phyu.
Myanmar’s public has become accustomed to an increasingly boisterous media since the country’s quasi-civilian government relaxed its grip on the press after coming to power in 2011 and introduced other wide-ranging reforms.
Military rulers had seized control over private daily papers in 1964, according to veteran journalist Thiha Saw of Open News weekly. Under junta rule, even an implied mention of the democracy movement and its figurehead, Aung San Suu Kyi, could have landed reporters in prison, but the Nobel Peace Prize laureate is now in Parliament and regularly appears in the papers.
Draconian prepublication censorship was officially scrapped in August, but private weeklies had already started pushing the boundaries of their freedom with reports on sensitive issues and news updates posted daily on social media.
A total of 16 weekly journals were allowed to become dailies under the new rules but logistical challenges meant some were not able to make the move immediately.
Among the front pages of the new dailies Monday the fragrantly titled Golden Fresh Land — also a sell-out at many newsstands — covered an upcoming trip by Suu Kyi to Japan and President Thein Sein’s address to the nation about recent Buddhist-Muslim unrest.
The Union, which is close to the ruling party, focused on news from the capital, Naypyi- taw. The Voice printed an update on the situation in the western state of Rakhine — the scene of deadly communal strife last year — and a report on a weekend concert in Yangon by Danish band Michael Learns to Rock. Observers hope a new media law being drafted by an interim press council will define the limits of press freedoms and replace harsh junta-imposed legislation.
But authorities recently revealed they had written their own proposal, stoking fears that the government is unwilling fully to relinquish control.
News groups also complain that the state press enjoys unfair advantages in funding and advertising. While private journals sell for around 200 kyats (about 20 U.S. cents), Myanmar’s three government-backed newspapers are half the price or less and many copies are distributed free at hotels and on aeroplanes.
The English-language New Light of Myanmar is now looking for a private partner and is angling for popular appeal after replacing the shrill pronouncements of the past — including “Anarchy begets anarchy, not democracy” — with gossip about Hollywood celebrities such as Scarlett Johansson.
But with propaganda still infusing state media’s main stories and headlines such as “Old lamp post replaced with new concrete lamp post,” private news groups are not overly worried about competition from the likes of New Light.
“Our journal publishes independent news which comes from people and is up to date. . . . I don’t think I have to worry,” said Nyein Nyein Naing of 7-Day News.
On the streets of Yangon on Monday, opinion was divided about the prospects for private daily papers.
“We worry that they will not be able to continue in the long term — people can’t afford to buy all of them because the newspapers now come out at the same time,” Kalar Lay said.
But fellow newspaper seller Win Myint said the recipe for success is simple: “If the reporting is good, people will buy it and read it.”