Burma sees return of private newspapers

Jonathan Head reports from a printing press in Rangoon

Private daily newspapers are being sold in Burma for the first time in almost 50 years, as a state monopoly ends.

Sixteen papers have so far been granted licences, although only four were ready to publish on Monday.

This is another important milestone on Burma's journey away from authoritarian rule, the BBC's Jonathan Head reports from the commercial capital, Rangoon.

Until recently, reporters in Burma faced some of the harshest restrictions in the world.

Private dailies in Burmese, English and other languages, which had been commonplace in the former British colony, were forced to close under military rule in 1964.

Subsequently, journalists were frequently subjected to surveillance and phone-tapping, and were often tortured or imprisoned. Newspapers that broke the rules were shut down.

But media controls have been relaxed as part of a programme of reforms launched by the government of President Thein Sein that took office in 2011.

'Hurdles'

Last August, the government informed journalists they would no longer have to submit their work routinely to state censors before publication.

Printer and publisher U Win Htay looks at the front page of his new daily, Standard Time, one of the first four private daily newspapers to be produced in Burma for half a century Publisher U Win Htay looks at the front page of his new daily, Standard Time

It announced in December that private dailies would be allowed to publish from 1 April.

Some initial print runs will be a modest few thousand, while the papers assess demand, our correspondent reports.

"I foresee several hurdles along the way," Khin Maung Lay, the 81-year-old editor of Golden Fresh Land, told the Associated Press.

"However, I am ready to run the paper in the spirit of freedom and professionalism taught by my peers during the good old days."

The other three dailies are The Voice, The Union and The Standard Time.

"The Voice daily sold out soon after it arrived even though I ordered double the amount than other newspapers. People are keen to read private daily newspapers for the first time," vendor Phyu Phyu told the AFP news agency.

The four papers all had different leads. The Voice carried an update on the situation in western Rakhine state, which saw deadly religious clashes last year. It also covered a weekend concert in Rangoon by Danish band Michael Learns to Rock.

The Golden Fresh Land reported on opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's visit to Japan, as well as action being taken against corrupt government officials. Standard Time looked at violence by majority Buddhists against Muslims in central Burma last week.

The arrival of privately owned papers on the news stands coincides with the first anniversary of the election of Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament.

She has since become an energetic player in the assembly, although, like the government, she is finding it difficult to respond to the complex challenges now confronting her country, our correspondent says.

She has been criticised for failing to speak out over the recent wave of attacks on Muslim communities, he adds - an issue over which the newly-liberated media is also being censured after some inaccurate and inflammatory reporting.

Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, is to start printing its own daily newspaper later this month.

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