A NEW ERA is to begin in Myanmar tomorrow when decades of restrictions on the country’s print media are relaxed.
The previous military junta’s 50-year-old restrictions on private media – with only state-run newspapers allowed to publish on a daily basis, as other titles were relegated to weekly (or even more infrequent publication) – are to come to an end at the turn of the month.
16 titles – which were previously only issued in heavy, bound ‘journal’ format – are being allowed to publish daily editions as part of the relaxation of censorship rules by the semi-civilian administration that has been in power since 2011.
Last year the administration lifted its requirement that all printed works be pre-approved – a rule which meant that even non-threatening works like children’s storybooks had to be submitted for official inspection before being released to the public.
Since then, criticism of the administration has become commonplace – while reporting of parliamentary affairs, and in particular of the contributions from opposition parties like Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, is no longer the taboo it once was.
That party’s newspaper, ‘D-Wave’, is one of the 16 papers which will turn daily in the coming months.
“Newspapers are really important because they are the mirror of the people,” said Nyan Win, a party spokesman, who told AFP that the party was likely to see extra revenue from newspaper sales – though it could be difficult to find enough content for daily editions given the relatively poor journalistic history in the country.
He said the party had not decided whether to expand editorial coverage to include general, non-political news – but that the question would not arise until July, when the paper gathers enough editorial staff to begin a daily edition.
An interesting media experiment
The developments could prove an interesting experiment in seeing how news is consumed in developing countries. Having been a virtual no-go area for foreign investment under military rule, Myanmar is now aggressively marketing itself as being ripe for an economic boom.
However, the country’s population is still largely centred around the capital, Yangon – and transport difficulties mean only those living in the capital will be able to receive a paper on a daily basis.
But that could change dramatically as economic development increases, and a reliance on foreign corporations brings the inevitable wave of mobile phones.
As the Nieman Lab reports, mobile phone ownership in Yangon and the second city of Mandalay has exploded in the last year – bringing with it a wave of interest in websites like Facebook.
The immediate surge in mobile ownership has already seen some of the restricted titles move to a digital-first model, where news is posted to the web in order to allow immediate distribution before censors can step in.
In many cases – including that of The Irrawaddy, the news website with the largest global profile – it is easier to provide news from abroad, with journalists living just over the border in Thailand or India posting updates for the native population.
It remains to be seen whether economic expansion will mean a wider proliferation of mobile phones, and of resulting internet use – but the effects of an independent media being spread to the 90 per cent of residents who don’t have bank accounts, let alone an internet connection, could be very profound.
Additional reporting by AFP