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Opinion: A disciplined Myanmar democracy


It remains to be seen whether the government’s red pen will be consigned to the rubbish bin.

OPINION
A DECADE has now been notched up since The Myanmar Times opened its doors – a substantial achievement and built by the earnest labours of countless dedicated journalists. Some have moved on. Others remain to this day. Still others for various reasons can no longer work shoulder to shoulder with us in our continuing effort to forge an independent and disciplined press in Myanmar.

The nation now stands on the brink of a new era as it prepares for next year’s election, an event poised to bring the most substantial changes in half a century to Myanmar in general and to the media in particular. A new mood has spread through the nation’s newsrooms, where for years publishers, editors and journalists have toiled under the excruciating weight of the official red pen.

This spirit of optimism guided the publication of The Myanmar Times’ 500th weekly edition earlier this month – a 104-page edition that received overwhelming support from readers and advertisers alike and stands as the largest and most successful in the history of the paper and, most likely, in Myanmar as well. Its success confirms the loyalty we have attracted through 10 difficult years and reinforces our love of journalism and our thirst for producing the best news under the most challenging of circumstances.

Confronting and transforming these circumstances remains a chief commitment as we enter our second decade. At a time when many of the world’s publishers grapple with declining revenues, plunging circulation and the mass migration of readers to free online news portals, The Myanmar Times continues to expand its operations in a nation that falls far short of its potential for sound and informative publishing.

In a region where limited access to computers and the Internet limits the impact of cutting-edge global media strategies, we nonetheless embrace as others have the necessity of change. But what drives our evolution is not an obsession with cutting costs but a passionate commitment to good journalism that honours the needs of our readers and remains relevant to our unique surroundings.

Serving a readership whose hunger has fuelled an explosion of new publications in Myanmar in the past decade – some 150 weeklies and 200 magazines – requires that we as editors and reporters constantly update our approach to ensure that we offer the most exclusive and relevant content available. It also requires that we zealously guard our independence in an age where many mainstream media outlets have fallen prey to multinational conglomerates and the exigencies of corporate spin.

We have never been more prepared to do the heavy lifting required of a newspaper that contends at every step with a wired world and global media giants that often put the interests of industry above the rights of readers.

On the eve of Myanmar’s unique transition towards a democratic union, we also stand ready to embrace the changes looming in the decade to come as the nation moves to reintegrate with the global community. The natural progression of our efforts on behalf of the country and its people lies in the transition to a daily news cycle. Under any definition of democracy, this right should serve as a baseline for all who are prepared to accept it.

The Myanmar Times has attained a critical mass with 350 educated and enthusiastic staff. It has also acquired the necessary printing technology and built an effective distribution chain. Our newsroom looks eagerly to the day that liberalisation of the nation’s institutions will bring liberalisation within the media sector, a development we are uniquely prepared to take advantage of by virtue of our experience, skill and devotion to a sector that demands the most rigorous standards of integrity. At a time when Myanmar aims to embrace the world, we serve as an excellent model for government and private-sector leaders.

We’ve come a long way. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that just a decade ago the nation home-produced no more than a dozen or so regular weekly publications and a single state-owned and -operated daily newspaper.

While maintaining a monopoly on daily news fare since the early 1960s, Myanmar’s official press has become less relevant in the new, modern and developed country that we all desire. Surely its continued existence must remain in doubt, as it holds readers’ attention by only the slimmest of threads. Its printing and production rely on outdated technology, and it does nothing to project the youthful vigour of a vibrant nation. The movements of military officials can be chronicled much more effectively than by the media relics of a bygone era.

Publications such as The Myanmar Times are the country’s news vehicles of tomorrow because they serve the interests of their readers and reflect the energy and enthusiasm of a nation eager to embrace the world and a new political future. In times of transition, reliable information and intelligent analysis remain essential, and shining light in dim places is more essential than ever.

A free press serves the democratic electorate well, and within society, it’s a forum for feedback while acting as a mechanism for correction.

Ultimately, it is in the government’s interest to nurture the criticism typical of a free-wheeling press, despite all the background clatter that such a step engenders. A healthy society needs news that is available to people from all walks of life and at a nominal cost – a role that newspapers have played well for more than a century.

As we enter our second decade, we do so with the unbridled optimism that brought us together at The Myanmar Times 10 years ago, and we relish the opportunity to remain an integral part of the nation’s fabric. We’re going to see over the coming 12 months whether or not the censor’s red pen is consigned to the rubbish bin because, ultimately, a newspaper is a reflection of the society in which we live.

Ross Dunkley is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Myanmar Times. Dunkley is also the publisher of The Phnom Penh Post.

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