Burmese leaders have fulfilled one promise and further removed the shackles from its state-run newspaper industry, with four of a possible 16 independent daily papers hitting the stands.
The issuing of licenses for 16 dailies and subsequent publications ended a 50-year monopoly held by a state-run press, a reform which should also help convince critics that attempts to normalize the country after years of isolation are genuine.
Like the newspaper industry the world over, Burma’s mastheads have had trouble raising capital and attracting and training journalists amid competition from online media, which has flourished regardless of government constraints in recent years.
All four mastheads – the Standard Time Daily, the Voice Daily, Golden Fresh Land and the government-linked Union Daily – are in the Burmese language, with plans for further publications in foreign languages including English. The four previously operated as weeklies.
Among others being prepared is the opposition-backed D-Wave Weekly, which is expected to bolster the National League for Democracy (NLD) and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi and give them an additional voice at the elections due by 2015.
The NLD has said it remains unsure when its publication will be launched. In years past, any reference to the opposition or subjects not sanctioned by the government would land reporters in jail.
Reporters Without Borders ranked Burma at 151 out of 179 countries on its press freedom index this year, up 18 places from its place in the 169th spot last year and up 23 places from 174th the year before. Despite progress, a newly established Burmese press council has warned that proposed media laws could threaten the current advances in freedom of expression.
The government of President Thein Sein has been trying to sell-off the propaganda paper The New Light of Myanmar, the only English language daily in the country, which toes the government line.
Burma has struggled to convince many critics that its reforms are genuine since a democracy of sorts was introduced with conditional elections in 2010. By-elections held last year opened the country further with the NLD securing stunning victories and entering parliament.
But ethnic conflicts have continued around the country and violence between the Buddhist militants and Rohingya Muslims has left scores dead and forced thousands from their homes in recent months.
This only added to suspicions surrounding a tragic fire at a mosque in Rangoon on Tuesday, which left 13 children dead. Police say the fire was started by an accidental electrical shortage.
Not surprisingly, ethnic conflict provided headlines for the country’s new batch of newspapers, with vendors reporting that the mastheads had been sold out as readers rushed to get their hands on the first editions. Hopefully, there’ll be better news to follow.