In Myanmar, Newly Free Media Struggle to Turn a Profit

YANGON, Myanmar — Myanmar’s journalists celebrated this year when the government lifted a five-decade ban on private newspapers.

But six months after a dozen dailies rushed into production, journalists who had withstood the wrath and cruelty of a military dictatorship are struggling against something much more mundane: market forces.

Despite expectations of pent-up demand, publishers say they are suffering from a lack of advertising and competition from the Internet.

“Every publisher is bleeding,” said U Sonny Swe, chief executive of the Mizzima Media Group, which publishes a daily. “You have to be ready to fight. And ready to lose.”

Three of the 12 dailies introduced this year have already shut down, and none of the remaining nine are reporting profits, publishers say.

Some of the challenges facing Myanmar’s new dailies are the same as those that have confronted the news business globally for years, like declining readership for print publications.

But Myanmar’s new dailies are also operating in an impoverished country where the legacy of military rule is pervasive. The private dailies are competing with state-run newspapers that were the mouthpieces of the junta and remain in business.

Distribution in big cities is still unreliable for the private papers, especially during the rainy season, and nearly nonexistent in the countryside. And a typical cover price of 20 cents a copy for the private papers is too high for many readers, publishers say. State-run publications sell for a fraction of that.

Private newspapers were banned in Myanmar, formerly Burma, by a military government in the 1960s. A junta that took over in 1988 allowed private weekly publications, but only under heavy censorship. The civilian administration that came to power in 2011 abolished censorship last year and allowed dailies to start publishing in April after obtaining licenses.

Daw Nyein Nyein Naing, the executive editor at The 7 Day Daily, one of the new newspapers, said finding good reporters had been difficult. Her reporters are addicted to Facebook, she said, and often post scoops to their Facebook pages, rather than filing stories to their editors.

She also lamented that many readers appeared to prefer dailies and weeklies that she said ran sensational articles of dubious veracity. “People are not buying quality,” she said.

“It was our dream to have a daily paper,” Ms. Nyein Nyein Naing said. “Sometimes I feel that maybe it was too early for Myanmar to have daily newspapers. We are not giving the best quality to readers. Maybe we were not ready, especially on the human resources side.”

With Myanmar’s future still uncertain, troubled by sectarian violence and questions about the military’s power and influence, editors say there is a great need for high-quality reporting from around the country.

This was evident during bouts of violence between Buddhists and Muslims this year, says U Than Htut Aung, the chairman of the Eleven Media Group, which has both a daily and a weekly.

When the central city of Meiktila erupted in sectarian violence in March, one of his photographers was chased away by a mob of angry Buddhists. A second photographer was dispatched from a nearby city, but he too was confronted by a marauding mob and forced to seek shelter in a police station. A third photographer was sent and posed as a businessman, discreetly taking photos of the city, where dozens of homes were burned and at least 44 people were killed. The Daily Eleven’s photos were among the first images sent from the city after the carnage.

Mr. Than Htut Aung said he printed about 85,000 copies of The Daily Eleven, which is not yet profitable despite being the largest private daily newspaper.

The paper is effectively subsidized by a weekly sports journal, which began publishing 13 years ago and which has consistently made money.

But smaller newspapers do not have that kind of financial support.

U Thiha Saw, a longtime journalist who clashed with censors many times during military rule, runs the country’s only private English-language daily, Myanma Freedom Daily.

“We scrimped and saved and sold our apartment,” said Mr. Thiha Saw, who is also vice president of the Myanmar Journalists Association. “Relatives and friends chipped in.”

He is considering courting outside investors but is worried that their money might come with “strings attached.”

Journalists say they face unfair competition from the state-run newspapers, especially because the state publications sell for a fraction of the price and have plentiful advertising, a legacy of military rule when they were the only dailies in the country.

U Kyaw Zwa Moe, editor of the English edition of the Irrawaddy, a widely read Internet news site that also publishes a monthly magazine, said the state-run papers are an impediment to the development of a free press in the country.

“In a democratic society you don’t expect the Ministry of Information to publish newspapers,” he said. “It’s a barrier for the freedom of the press, and for private and independent media groups.”

Some of the new dailies, although private, have the backing of the old military establishment.

Union Daily, which is published by the Union Solidarity and Development Party, or U.S.D.P., the party formed by the former junta that has a majority in Parliament, makes no secret about its mission.

“Union Daily reflects the policies of the U.S.D.P.,” said U Win Tin, a former army officer who is the paper’s chief editor. “We are doing P.R. for the U.S.D.P.”

In the long term, both private and state-run newspapers are likely to find it harder than ever, editors say.

With Internet connections improving and big foreign telecommunications companies poised to install mobile phone networks that could bring tens of millions of people online for the first time, Myanmar is likely to follow the global trend of people looking online for their news.

“Newspapers are so new for this country — that is why everyone is publishing,” said Mr. Sonny Swe, the chief executive of Mizzima.

“But you don’t want to be in newspapers for 10 years,” he said. “Our future is in mobile.”

Source: THE IRRAWADDY Myanmar

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