Three years after the reform process began, Myanmar’s state-run daily newspapers are yet to enjoy complete editorial freedom and face challenges over the proficiency of their newsroom employees.
In an increasingly open and competitive environment, with the private sector press expanding but hungry for circulation growth and more advertising revenue, some are wondering how long state media will remain viable in a less restrictive media market. But, argue the editors of state-run papers, with continued government backing, the country’s best newspaper distribution networks and by publishing what they say their readers and advertisers want, it may be too early to count them out as the government’s papers of record.
“Before the country opened up, to write an editorial we just had to follow what leaders said in their speeches. But, today, I can point out the weaknesses of the health sector in my editorial,” said U Khin Maung Kyaw Din, 54, chief editor of Myanmar-language daily Kyemon (The Mirror). “But, not directly, indirectly,” he added, referring to the editorial he was writing about health care reforms.
U Khin Maung Kyaw Din rose through the ranks of the state press, beginning work as a paper boy delivering Kyemon door to door in about 1974, before joining state-run Myanma Alinn Daily in 1977 as a clerk in the advertising department. He was appointed chief editor of Kyemon in 2008.
U Khin Maung Kyaw Din has found that while control over the state-run press was relaxed after the Thein Sein government came to power nearly three years ago, it is yet to celebrate complete editorial freedom.
“We have no right to edit news stories (from the Myanmar News Agency) related to top leaders,” he said, adding that editors did not know how to edit long and stereotyped stories written according to inflexible bureaucratic rules.
“Some have not yet changed their mind-set,” U Khin Maung Kyaw Din said, referring to the control mentality of a few of the officials in charge of the state-run media.
Those who had changed their mind-set were reluctant to take the initiative to implement newsroom reforms because of the possibility of negative consequences. “And some don’t know how to change or reform the workplaces or systems,” U Khing Maung Kyaw Din said.
“We should at least get editorial freedom like in Singapore and in China,” he said, somewhat ironically, referring to countries with limited press freedom. During a visit to China, he discovered that the state-run press there has more freedom than its Myanmar counterparts – as long as it obeys the rule of not criticizing the policies of the Chinese Communist Party.
Official figures put the circulation of Kyemon at between 150,000 and 180,000, ahead of Myanma Alinn Daily’s circulation of 130,000 to 160,000.
After Ne Win seized power in a military coup in 1962, private sector newspapers were nationalized and Kyemon and Myanma Alinn Daily became state-run dailies.
Successive military governments have for decades forced state-run dailies to rely on stereotyped news – written according to inflexible bureaucratic rules – from the Myanmar News Agency, which has had the effect of inhibiting career development opportunities for journalists at the newspapers. The general perception of stories produced by the state-owned Myanmar News Agency is that they are reports about speeches given by leaders or ministers and the activities of ministries.
“Editors can’t rewrite the reports, which do not include facts and figures,” said U Win Naing, editor of Kyemon.
Editors of state-run dailies do not have the right to edit Myanmar News Agency reports about the country’s six top leaders: the president, two vice-presidents, the two speakers of parliament and the Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services.
“We have worked stereotypically here for many years. So, we lost our rationalization and creative thinking,” said U Win Naing.
“Even if we get editorial freedom today, we are not ready to improve the quality of our dailies immediately, because our human resources have been destroyed,” he said.
State-run dailies have also suffered from a loss of editorial staff to competitors since April 2013 when the government allowed the private sector to launch daily newspapers and they recruited heavily for their expanded newsrooms.
U Soe Soe Naing, an editor at Kyemon, said there was a mismatch between competence and roles in the state-run media.
“Editors are working as foremen and reporters are working as proof readers,” said U Soe Soe Naing.
“This is the difference between the state-run press and private sector media: the latter publishes news stories gathered by their reporters; the state-run press covers reports from ministries,” he said.
One year after taking office, President U Thein Sein’s government declared that it planned to transform the state-run press into a public service media which will give voice to ethnic minorities. U Soe Soe Naing said it was difficult to envisage reports expressing the opinions of the people and human interest stories being covered by the state-run press.
The editors of state-run dailies often cite, as an example of government sensitivity over criticism of ministries, a report about the cost of an apartment in what the relevant ministry had described as a low-cost housing project in Yangon.
The article, contributed by a retired public servant, had complained that at more than K20 million (about US$20,000), the price set for an apartment in what was described as a low-cost housing project was out of the financial reach of people in his situation. This was regarded as criticism of the ministry and the article was rejected for publication.
“If the government wants its state-run dailies to function as a people-centred press, there should be the voices of the people in our newspapers,” U Soe Soe Naing said.
U Khin Maung Kyaw Din says the future of state-run dailies will depend partly on their ability to attract more young journalists.
“Today is the time to consider the new generation,” he said, adding that if younger journalists at state-run dailies were not given more opportunities “we will fall someday”.
The private sector dailies have complained recently that they are running at a loss because they cannot compete against the state-run press, which is accused of monopolizing the media market.
The private sector media was incensed when the Ministry of Information sought an allocation for its News and Periodicals Enterprise of K36.566 billion (about US$37.2 million) for the 2014-2015 financial year to publish Kyemon, Myanma Alinn Daily and the English-language New Light of Myanmar. The private sector media said the papers were running at a loss.
News and Periodicals Enterprise director U Win Zaw Htay described the reports in the private sector media that the three dailies were operating at a loss as being contrary to the ethics of journalism.
Speaking recently at a news conference in Nay Pyi Taw, he said Information Minister U Aung Kyi sought the budget allocation of K36.566 billion for six departments under the ministry.
U Win Zaw Htay said that in the 2012-2013 fiscal year, of K3.337 billion allocated to News and Periodicals Enterprise, it recorded spending of K11.75 billion, and generated revenues of K14.19 billion, realizing a profit of K2.44 billion.
Figures released by the Information Ministry at the press conference also showed that in the first nine months of the 2013-2014 fiscal year, News and Periodicals Enterprise generated revenues of K13.92 billion and recorded spending of K10.04 billion.
“In reality, they (private media) have 100 percent media freedom,’ said Kyemon chief editor U Khin Maung Kyaw Din. “They are running at a loss not because of us [the state-run media], but because they do not know how to run a daily.”
Without elaborating on what factors were taken into account in his estimate, U Khin Maung Kyaw Din said it costs about K1 million to publish a 24-page tabloid each day.
“If there are no ads or income from it, a boss is throwing away 1 million kyat a day,” he said.
The government last year granted 30 daily newspaper publishing licences to the private sector. Of the 30, 18 met the condition to launch by last December and the 12 which failed to meet the deadline would have their licences revoked, said U Aung Kyaw Oo, the director of the Ministry of Information’s Copyright and Registration Department.
U Khin Maung Kyaw Din believes he knows what the people of Myanmar want from their newspapers.
He says that because 70 percent of the population lives in rural areas or are what he calls ordinary people, the presentation of news stories needs to be clear and simple. The mass reading market does not want complicated stories that include difficult words.
“The private sector media is presenting today what it wants to see and what it wants to be, it is not thinking about what the people need and want,” U Khin Maung Kyaw Din said.
He said the latest trend among private sector newspapers was a “competition for thickness” and the result was an emphasis on long reports and articles to make papers fatter, rather than short, simple reports that readers preferred.
“What they are doing wrong today is putting so many long articles and long stories in their papers, which is what they did when they published weekly journals,” said U Khin Maung Kyaw Din.
The opening-up of the country since early 2011 has coincided with an increase in advertising in state-run dailies.
U Khin Maung Kyaw Din quoted businesspeople as saying they liked to advertise in Kyemon because they knew it was an effective advertising medium.
“Advertising in state-run dailies is very effective,” he said.
“They have high circulations, they reach people throughout most of the country and their subscribers range from ward administrators to the president.”
The high circulations, national distribution and number of pages devoted to advertising (in a recent 28-page edition of Myanma Alinn Daily, 12 pages were devoted to display or classified advertising, including advertisements from government ministries and obituaries), give the state-run dailies are clear market advantage over private sector newspapers.
U Khin Maung Kyaw Din said Kyemon has a circulation of more than 185,000 and he is optimistic it can reach 200,000. When it was founded in 1957 by U Thaung, the Burmese author and journalist, Kyemon’s circulation was only about 3,000 copies per day. The paper’s circulation rose to 55,000 over the next seven years, before it was nationalized on September 1, 1964. During the socialist period from 1974 to 1988, Kyemon’s went from around 75,000 to 110,000 a day.
He said the reason for its rise in circulation included publishing fresh news from throughout the country and its clear, simple style of presentation. An affordable price also meant that many people at the lower end of the socio-economic ladder could afford monthly subscriptions.
“If the private sector media wants to achieve success, it should learn from how Kyemon struggled during the socialist period to increase its circulation,” U Khin Maung Kyaw Din said.
This Article first appeared in the March 13, 2014 edition of Mizzima Business Weekly.
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