Privately owned daily newspapers hit Myanmar’s streets for the first time in decades yesterday under new freedoms that represent a revolution for a media shackled under military rule.
Four Burmese-language titles — the Voice, the Golden Fresh Land, the Union and the Standard Time — made the transition from weekly 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 of 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,” newspaper seller Phyu Phyu said.
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.
The country’s military rulers seized control of private daily papers in 1964, Open News weekly veteran journalist Thiha Saw said.
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 laureate is now in parliament and regularly appears in the papers.
Draconian pre-publication censorship was officially scrapped in August last year, 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 news journals were allowed to become dailies under the new rules, including Aung San Suu Kyi’s party paper, but logistical challenges mean some were not able to make the move immediately.
Among the front pages of the new dailies yesterday, the Golden Fresh Land — also a sell-out at many newsstands — covered an upcoming Aung San Suu Kyi trip to Japan and Burmese 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, Naypyidaw.
The Voice printed an update on the situation in western Rakhine state — the scene of deadly communal strife last year — and a report on a weekend concert by Danish band Michael Learns to Rock in Yangon.
Myanmar jumped to 151st out of 179 in Reporters Without Borders’ 2013 World Press Freedom Index because of “dramatic changes” that included scrapping its harsh pre-publication scrutiny regime — until last year imposed on everything from newspapers to fairytales.
Observers hope that a new media law being drafted by an interim press council will define the limits of press freedoms and replace harsh junta-imposed legislation.
However, reform has been mired in controversy in recent weeks, after authorities revealed they had written their own proposal, stoking fears that government is unwilling to fully relinquish control of the press.
News groups also complain that the state press enjoys unfair advantages in funding and advertising.
While private journals sell for about 200 kyats (about US$0.20), Myanmar’s three government-backed newspapers are half the price or less and many copies are distributed free at hotels and on airplanes.
The English-language New Light of Myanmar is now looking for a private partner and prints Hollywood gossip in place of the shrill pronouncements of the past — which targeted the “killer broadcasts” of foreign media like the BBC.
On the streets of Yangon yesterday 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.
However, fellow newspaper seller Win Myint said the recipe for success was simple: “If the reporting is good, people will buy it and read it.”