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Privately owned daily newspapers return to Myanmar

Monday - 4/1/2013, 7:40pm  ET

Newspaper sellers wait for a bus after receiving newspapers from a wholesale dispatcher in Yangon, Myanmar, Monday, April 1, 2013. For most people in Myanmar, it will be a novelty when privately run daily newspapers hit the streets on Monday. Many weren't even born when the late dictator Ne Win imposed a state monopoly on the daily press in the 1960s.(AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

AYE AYE WIN
Associated Press

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) -- The newspaper industry might be shrinking in the rest of the world but it expanded Monday in Myanmar when privately run daily newspapers hit newsstands for the first time in 50 years.

For many people, the rebirth of daily papers is a novelty: Many weren't even born when the late dictator Ne Win imposed a state monopoly on the daily press in the 1960s.

But for 81-year-old Khin Maung Lay, it's like a second lease on life. He is chief editor of Golden Fresh Land, one of four dailies that went on sale Monday as Myanmar takes another step in its march toward democracy.

"We've been waiting half a century for this day," said the veteran editor, adding that the paper's initial print run of 80,000 copies was sold out by late morning. "It shows how much people long for private daily newspapers. This morning, I was in tears seeing this."

He's old enough to recall there once had been a big and vibrant daily press in the Burmese, English, Indian and Chinese languages in the period of parliamentary democracy after Myanmar, known then as Burma, won independence from Britain in 1948.

Khin Maung Lay worked as a senior newsman at the Burmese language Mogyo daily before it was driven out of business by government pressure in 1964.

Now as chief editor of Golden Fresh Land -- the name sounds less awkward in the original Burmese -- he heads a team of young journalists he recruited from various weeklies, journalists who have only the briefest of acquaintances with the concept of a free press, having grown up under the military government that ruled for five decades. They are up against some media behemoths and papers belonging to the country's top political parties.

The ruling USDP party launched a daily called The Union, and the well-established weekly The Voice is converting itself into the Voice Daily. The other newcomer is The Standard Time Daily. All four newspapers are in Burmese, ranging in price from 150 kyat-200 kyat (US20 cents- 25 cents).

Khin Maung Lay acknowledges there are innumerable challenges ahead, but said he is ready to face them "in the name of freedom of press." He's well acquainted with the cutting edge of the concept -- he went to jail three times under Ne Win, including a three-year stretch in "protective custody," a catch-all phrase the military regime used when imprisoning critics.

"I foresee several hurdles along the way," he said. "However, I am ready to run the paper in the spirit of freedom and professionalism taught by my peers during the good old days."

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 for the impoverished country.

"Now we can get information every day, rather than once a week," he said. "It's the best way to get up-to-date news for those who don't have access to the Internet."

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 liberalization were at the top of his agenda, in an effort to boost national development.

As part of an easing of media restrictions, The Associated Press became the first international news agency to open a bureau in Myanmar since the new government took power two years ago. Six multi-format journalists will staff the new AP bureau full-time.

The government lifted censorship in August last year, allowing reporters to print material that would have been unthinkable under military rule.

It's not smooth sailing yet. 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 licenses at any time.

The government announced in December that any Myanmar national wishing to publish a daily newspaper was welcome to apply and could begin publishing on April 1.

There were nearly two dozen applications, and Golden Fresh Land was one of 16 to win approval. Others include dailies to be put out by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party and Thein Sein's ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party.

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