For many Burmese, the rebirth of daily papers is a novelty – many were not even born when the late dictator Ne Win imposed a state monopoly on the daily press in the 1960s.
But for Khin Maung Lay, 81, it is like a second lease on life. He is editor-in-chief of Golden Fresh Land, one of four daily titles that went on sale yesterday.
“We’ve been waiting half a century for this day,” said the veteran editor. He said the paper’s initial print run of 80,000 copies was sold out by late morning, adding: “It shows how much people long for private daily newspapers. This morning, I was in tears seeing this.”
He is old enough to recall the vibrant daily press in the Burmese, English, Indian and Chinese languages in the period of parliamentary democracy after Burma won independence from Britain in 1948. He worked as a senior reporter at the Burmese language daily Mogyo before it was driven out of business by government pressure in 1964.
Now as editor-in-chief of Golden Fresh Land – a rough translation of the Burmese – he heads a team of young journalists who have only the briefest of acquaintances with the concept of a free press, having grown up under the military government.
They are up against media behemoths and papers belonging to the country’s top political parties. The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party has launched a daily called The Union, and well-established weekly The Voice is converting to the Voice Daily. The other main newcomer is The Standard Time Daily. All four are in Burmese.
Khin Maung Lay acknowledged there are innumerable challenges ahead, but said he is ready to face them “in the name of freedom of the press”. He is well acquainted with the cutting edge of the concept, having been jailed three times under Ne Win.
One of the main hurdles will be beating the competition.
“It won’t be easy for all the newspapers to survive. As a reader, I can’t afford to buy every newspaper, every day,” said taxi driver Tun Win, 52, who normally kept up with current affairs by buying three news weeklies. Nonetheless, he called the arrival of daily papers a big step forward for the country.
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 liberalisation were at the top of his agenda, in an effort to boost national development.
The government lifted censorship in August last year, allowing reporters to print material that would have been unthinkable under military rule.
However, 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 licences at any time.
Most coverage of local and national news in the state press has been little more than the equivalent of government press releases. Opinion pieces invariably reflect conservative positions.
The government announced in December that any Burmese national wishing to publish a daily newspaper was welcome to apply. There were nearly two dozen applications, with 16 winning approval.