Four private dailies hit the newsstands for the first time in almost 50 years in Myanmar on Monday, but many others failed to appear, hamstrung by poor financing, archaic equipment and a dearth of reporters.
Sixteen dailies were granted licences by authorities, but only four were published.
The government-affiliated Union Daily, one of three dailies available free of charge, used financial clout to beat out competitors like D-Wave, the paper of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), for which publication preparations are still underway.
“All four papers sold out quickly today,” Kyi Kyi, a roadside book vendor, told Reuters.
“But it’s very hard to predict their future sales since three of them were distributed free of charge today and the remaining one was sold at 150 kyat ($0.17) per copy,”
Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government took power in early 2011 after the military dictatorship relinquished a half-century stranglehold on the former Burma. It embarked on media reforms as part of its democratisation programme in August 2012, when it relaxed draconian censorship.
The three other newspapers distributed were the Voice Daily, Golden Fresh Land and The Standard Time Daily, all Burmese-language publications.
Competitors were unwilling, or unable, to get their dailies into the hands of the public quite as quickly.
“Frankly it’s quite early to say for sure when ours will come out. We are still making necessary preparations to publish the daily,” said Han Tha Myint, a member of the NLD’s Central Executive Committee, which publishes D-Wave Weekly.
Distribution, poor infrastructure, outmoded printing equipment and staffing issues are some of the stumbling blocks for media organisations wanting to expand into dailies.
“To be frank, the government granted licences much earlier than we expected and we were caught by surprise,” said the editor of one private paper, who uses the pseudonym Ko Maung.
“There are a lot of things we have to prepare like printing facilities and training staff,” he told Reuters, pegging well-funded state-owned dailies as the likely major competitors in a market that will become very crowded, very quickly.
The Ministry of Information has invited local and foreign partners to invest in a joint venture to publish the New Light of Myanmar, a former state propaganda newspaper and the only English-language daily in the country.
Other media groups are waiting for clarity on how Myanmar will treat publications benefitting from foreign investment.
“It’s been an excruciating wait, a bit like a tree trying to grow through a crack in a rock, but we have now arrived at the starting line and no one seems at all in a hurry,” Ross Dunkley, managing editor of The Myanmar Times, which is applying for licences for both Burmese and English dailies, said last month.
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranks Myanmar 151st out of 179 countries in its Press Freedom Index, up 18 places compared to the previous year.
RSF has warned that a media bill, presented to parliament in March, could threaten the “fragile” progress Myanmar has made since 2011.
It criticised provisions that could result in newspapers being declared illegal for publishing material liable to threaten national reconciliation, denigrate religions or disturb the rule of law.