For years, the main source of news in this Southeast Asian nation, recently freed from five decades of military dictatorship, was the state-owned daily, the New Light of Myanmar.
The paper regularly railed against foreign radio stations and accused the BBC of reporting lies. It ran stories with headlines such as “Religious Affairs Minister Deals with Religious Matters.” Its slogan, “The Most Reliable Newspaper Around You,” was true, because it was the only daily paper around.
But the New Light is facing competition. On April 1, Myanmar allowed privately owned papers to publish daily for the first time in 50 years. The government officially ended censorship last August, drawing to a close an era that saw journalists harassed, beaten and sometimes jailed or exiled. Now, the state mouthpiece is trying to become something readers might actually want to read. It introduced advertising and colour printing and is now looking to form a joint venture with a private partner.
Four new daily publications appeared this month. “Of course, it is still far from perfect, but we just have to compare with how we’ve been living for the last half-century,” said Khin Maung Win, deputy executive director of Democratic Voice of Burma, a non-profit media organization that has been based in Oslo since 1982.
But a media renaissance in what was until recently one of the world’s most isolated states does not come without challenges.
Although the liberal policies enacted by President Thein Sein since 2011 are unprecedented, no ones knows how the government will react to the challenges of a more open society.
Previously, the government had only allowed weekly publications,which gave government censors ample time to vet articles. Despite the censorship, Burmese proved to be voracious readers and the journals flourished. More than 200 private weeklies started up in the past decade.
One journal planning to go daily is Mizzima, a multimedia news organization founded by exiled journalists in Delhi in 1998. Last year, it became the first of the exile media to move its headquarters to Myanmar. “We thought, okay, this is the time. It’s a transition period. We’ll try to go back,” says Thin Thin Aung, who co-founded Mizzima with her husband.
Mizzima’s headquarters are in a run-down office tower not far from Shwedagon Pagoda, the spiritual heart of Myanmar. The sparse newsroom has canary-yellow walls, neon lights and, on a hot afternoon in late March, very few reporters. The bulk of the staff is in Naypyidaw, the newly built capital, providing media training to government officials – a sign of how far things have come.
Many journalists are concerned, though, about how much freedom they actually have. A draft law submitted to parliament in March would impose a six-month jail sentence for licence violations and a ban on criticizing the military-drafted constitution.
“Journalists here have no idea how far they can go,” says Kyaw Zwa Moe, editor of the English-language Irrawaddy Magazine, which published in Myanmar for the first time in December after 13 years in neighbouring Thailand, where the company maintains its headquarters. “In terms of the corruption issue, in terms of power struggle within government, in terms of powerful military leaders, when we cover those issues, no journalist knows how far they can go. So in a way, they have to impose self-censorship when they report.”
But in a sign the government – and country – is perhaps up for the challenge, parliament delayed discussion on the media bill after an uproar by members of the local press. “The government is learning,” says Thin Thin Aung, Mizzima’s co-founder. “If the journalists fight, they will listen.”