It's Tough to Start a Newspaper After 50 Years of State Censorship

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On April 1, Burma's media will be free to print dailies for the first time in five decades. All they have to do first is figure out what journalism is.

The Voice Weekly newsroom banner.jpg
The newsroom of the Voice Weekly newspaper. (Jake Spring)

RANGOON, BURMA -- Six days a week, one of the world's most exclusive newspapers goes to print at 3 p.m. Two hours later, it's in the hands of just 50 white-collar Burmese: the same journalists who wrote it.

For now, only the staff of The Yangon Times can see their creation, as daily private newspapers remain illegal across Burma. For the last three months, the dailies have been written, edited and printed on photocopiers as practice for the day when that ban will be lifted. After five decades of military rule and strict media controls, that long-awaited day is fast approaching, and journalists around the country are up against the most exciting deadline they have ever faced: April 1, the first day in decades when daily newspapers can be sold freely. To prepare, media companies are now scrambling to figure out everything from how to write news on a daily basis to how much to charge for a daily issue.

The Democracy Report

Closed to the world since a military coup in 1962, Burma appears to have missed the news that the print media is dying. The democratically elected, although still military-dominated, government that came to power in 2010 has decided that media will be among the first areas of reform, driving massive hiring and investment in the industry. The government ended media censorship in August and soon followed by announcing that daily newspapers would be allowed in April.

The policy change will end the short-lived heyday of private weekly newspapers, commonly called journals, the most popular of which have only launched since 2000. Regulators under the military government had allowed weeklies, as they afforded censors ample time to pore over the papers for signs of dissension. A thriving group of more than 200 private weeklies arose during the last decade as the reading public sought an alternative to government-run dailies that read more like staid corporate newsletters than newspapers.

From the ashes of these weeklies will spring the new breed of daily publications. Ko Ko, chairman of The Rangoon Media Group which publishes The Yangon Times weekly, sees converting from a weekly to a daily as a necessity, not a choice. "We, the local media industry, are facing a do or die scenario ... If you don't publish daily newspaper, your business will be finished because once daily newspapers come in, who will read weekly newspaper?" he said in an interview at the media group's offices in Rangoon.


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The newsroom at The Seven Day Weekly. (Jake Spring)

The crush of new daily newspapers - most in the industry expect up to 25 to launch - must first clear regulatory hurdles. According to local reports, media regulators announced on Saturday that of 17 media companies that have already applied for daily licenses, eight have been approved for publication starting next month, six were denied and three remain under consideration. Despite the rejections, the government has yet to signal that licenses will be used as a gatekeeping mechanism to shut out critical newspapers. Among the rejected was Eleven Media Group, which publishes one of the highest-circulation weeklies. The group reported on its website that the rejection was based on a technicality, the lack of an official revenue stamp and failure to specify what the language of the publication would be. The ministry advised the group to reapply. Media leaders in Rangoon like Ko Ko said in mid-February they were certain the government would approve all completed applications.

Licensed dailies must then overcome a litany of logistical hurdles in a country that still struggles to keep the lights on. "The people are now realizing that initially there is a big dream, daily newspapers is a dream. Now the dream's come true and they started to realize this is not an easy job," Ko Ko said. "This is not only the fourth estate, but this is a business."

Kyaw Min Swe, the chief editor of the news journal The Voice Weekly, is one journalist who professes to have long dreamed of publishing a daily newspaper. But like Ko Ko, Kyaw Min Swe has no illusions about the challenges that must be overcome to launch a daily and admits he knows little of how a daily newspaper operates. The Voice is also publishing a daily newspaper in-house to allow reporters and editors to practice on tighter deadlines. But delivering the newspapers to readers' hands will be the primary obstacle, Kyaw Min Swe said.

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Jake Spring

Jake Spring is an American writer based in Shanghai.

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