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Private Newspapers Return to Myanmar

Soe Than Win | Stringer | Getty Images

Privately owned daily newspapers have returned to Myanmar's news stands after an absence of almost 50 years.

Four new dailies — The Voice, The Golden Fresh Land, The Union and The Standard Time — went on sale Monday morning, becoming the first papers since 1964 not controlled by the state. Twelve more are due to follow.

"We've been waiting half a century for this day," Golden Fresh Land's editor Khin Maung Lay told Irrawaddy Magazine.

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All 80,000 copies of his paper's inital print run had sold out by late morning, he said, which shows "how much people long for private daily newspapers. This morning, I was in tears seeing this."

Myanmar's once vibrant, multilingual press was effectively shut down by the junta that seized power in 1962, with newspapers either forced to close or put under state control by 1964.

Myanmar's reliance on printed news recalls the Western world's pre-Internet era, when citizens watched dramatic events unfold through hand-delivered papers. Some major outlets, such as Eleven Media, had already been skirting a government ban on private dailies by updating their Web sites frequently.

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But Internet penetration in long-cloistered Myanmar is as low as 1 percent and home internet connections are an urban luxury. Myanmar remains one of Southeast Asia's poorest nations and the new wave of daily papers must cater to local budgets. Most are expected to cost less than 25 cents per issue.

Among the papers now permitted to go daily is D-Wave, published by the political camp of parliamentarian Aung San Suu Kyi, an icon of dissidence whose image was until recent years forbidden from the media. She now appears on journal covers every week.

Myanmar's journalists are obligated to keep pushing for more liberties from the government, said Win Tin, an advisor to D-Wave and elder statesman from Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. Though seemingly at odds, he said, the government and the press rely on one another to function.

"It all depends on the current government in power. They still try to control things too much," Win Tin said at a late March event attended by GlobalPost. "We still don't know the government's full intention when it comes to freedom of the press."

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As part of the current government's reforms, censorship was officially scrapped in August and, in December, it was announced that licenses for private daily papers would be granted from April 1.

The change was hailed as a victory for democracy — though other recent developments have highlighted the precarity of Myanmar's press freedom.

Last month the government proposed replacing the junta-era media law with new legislation that would continue to restrict reporting, including banning journalists from covering clashes between ethnic groups and producing articles that supposedly violate the constitution. The Information Ministry said the rules were needed to rein in "poisonous" publications.

The draft law is due go before parliament when it next convenes, from June.

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