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A man inspects the inaugural copy of the Golden Fresh Land daily newspaper at a printing press in Yangon, Myanmar, on Sunday.

Novelty in Myanmar: Free press

– For most people in Myanmar, it will be a novelty when privately run daily newspapers hit the streets today. Many weren’t even born when the late dictator Ne Win imposed a state monopoly on the daily press in the 1960s.

But for 81-year-old Khin Maung Lay, the rebirth of daily newspapers is like a second lease on life. He is chief editor of Golden Fresh Land, one of four dailies going on sale today as Myanmar takes another step in its march toward democracy.

He’s old enough to recall the big and vibrant daily press in the Burmese, English, Indian and Chinese languages in the period of parliamentary democracy after Myanmar, known then as Burma, won independence from Britain in 1948.

Khin Maung Lay worked as a senior newsman at the Burmese language Mogyo daily before it was driven out of business by government pressure in 1964.

Now as chief editor of Golden Fresh Land – the name sounds less awkward in the original Burmese – he heads a team of young journalists he recruited from various weeklies, who are acquainted only briefly with the concept of a free press, having grown up under the military government that ruled for five decades. They are up against some media behemoths and papers belonging to the country’s top political parties.

Khin Maung Lay acknowledges there are innumerable challenges ahead but said he is ready to face them “in the name of freedom of press.”

He’s well acquainted with the cutting edge of the concept – he went to jail three times under Ne Win, including a three-year stretch in “protective custody,” a catch-all phrase the military regime used as a reason for imprisoning critics.

“I foresee several hurdles along the way,” he said. “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 newspaper renaissance is part of the reform efforts of President Thein Sein, who, after serving as prime minister in the previous military regime, took office in March 2011 as head of an elected civilian government. Political and economic liberalization were at the top of his agenda, in an effort to boost national development.

The government lifted censorship in August last year, allowing reporters to print material that would have been unthinkable under military rule.

It’s not smooth sailing yet. 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.

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