Myanmar's state monopoly on daily newspapers ended on Monday as four privately owned dailies launched for the first time in nearly five deacades.
There have been no privately owned dailies in the country since it came under military rule in the 1960s.
President Thein Sein took office in March 2011 as head of an elected civilian regime. Political and economic liberalisation were at the top of his agenda, in an effort to boost national development.
The government announced in December that any Myanmar national wishing to publish a daily newspaper was welcome to apply and could begin publishing on April 1.
There were approvals for 16 papers, including dailies to be put out by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party and Thein Sein's ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party.
The Voice Daily made its debut Monday, issued by the same group that has published a popular weekly since 2004.
“I am very excited that we are finally printing daily editions. It is a dream come true because that was our objective when we began publishing the Voice Journal in 2004,” 42-year-old editor-in-chief Kyaw Min Shwe said Sunday, as reporters hustled around his newsroom to put out their first edition.
He said the established government newspapers have an advantage in terms of money and distribution, but “I can say with absolute confidence that we can compete with government papers in terms of content and quality of news.”
Despite the new reforms, the draconian 1962 Printing and Registration Act remains in place until a new media law is enacted. It carries a maximum seven-year prison term for failure to register and allows the government to revoke publishing licenses at any time.
Most coverage of local and national news in the state press is little more than the equivalent of government press releases, typically reporting on less-than-riveting topics such as the names of all the officials who attended the inauguration of a new bridge. Opinion pieces invariably reflect conservative positions that seem decades behind the times.
Aware of its vulnerability, the English-language state paper, the New Light of Myanmar, is seeking a joint venture partner to help with a makeover.
The entry of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, called the Union Daily, plans to make use of its strong financial base. The pro-military party, which holds a strong majority in parliament, is backed by many tycoons. Chief editor Win Tin said the paper will be distributed free of charge for the first 10 days beginning Monday.
“We are financially strong and we have many experienced people,” he said, adding that the party will have its own separate propaganda sheet and that the newspaper will not be a mouthpiece for it.
Strong competition will come from savvy big media groups who say they will launch later.
“We need more time for preparation. It is quite challenging for the reporters to switch from weeklies to dailies,” said Nyein Nyein Naing, executive editor of the 7-Day weekly news journal.
“We need more time for preparation and we have to have test runs before we start the daily edition,” said Dr Than Htut Aung, CEO of the popular Eleven media group, which plans to launch The Daily Eleven on May 3.
“I will print my first daily edition on May 3, Press Freedom Day, because it is very symbolic,” he said.