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Opinion: The frontier of press freedom

Opinion: The frontier of press freedom

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Much has been spoken about the introduction of private daily newspapers in Myanmar to take the place of the state press. But what does it mean in real terms, and who will be the winners and losers? Yadana Htun put these questions to Ross Dunkley, founder and editor-in-chief of The Myanmar Times and publisher of The Phnom Penh Post.

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You have been involved with the media in Myanmar since 2000. How will the industry change when the government passes a law allowing private daily newspapers?

I’m tremendously impressed by the emphasis President U Thein Sein has placed on the critical role to be played by the print media in the democratisation process.

He deserves great credit for his comments, which were a huge encouragement to those of us in the media who are eagerly awaiting the end of censorship. The media is the fourth pillar of a democratic state.

The newspapers that spring up will expose businesses’ corrupt practices, keep politicians honest, highlight the social problems facing the nation and delve into the cultural definition of what Myanmar is and what it means to be a citizen of Myanmar.

I also imagine there will be a lively exchange between readers and newspapers, and most of it will be good, healthy stuff because Myanmar’s people will want to be engaged.

Inevitably, some from both sides will be over-exuberant, and a discipline not seen before in Myanmar will be essential. But the vast majority of publishers’ time will be spent informing and entertaining readers in an appropriate way.

Do media companies have enough capacity to publish daily newspapers, and are there enough readers?

Not one of us is ready to undertake the enormous task of trying to reach the vast interior and less populated areas. In fact, we couldn’t even service Yangon effectively.

My research says between 35 million and 40 million people in Myanmar are of reading age, so even if only one per cent of them were likely to buy a daily newspaper, that would be as many as 400,000 papers a day.

And in Yangon, with a population of, say, five million, if 10 per cent of the people buy one, that’s half a million copies as well.

So, conservatively speaking, we can expect demand for one million copies of a daily newspaper a day.

I don’t believe any media company in Myanmar has the capacity to service that potential market, let alone reach it. And there’s no media company ready now that could produce an effective seven-day-a-week daily.

But registration should not be withheld from any company that has a reasonable chance of publishing a daily newspaper.

When daily newspapers come out, do you think they will be profitable? What difficulties might they face?

Get ready for a bloodbath – a massive, painful rationalisation as market forces come into play.

With a free media, we will most likely end up with two types of newspapers that will fight it out. Many of the rest will go under.

The survivors will be those with very deep pockets intent on building diversified media groups.

Competing with them will be the creative end of town: publishers doing it on a shoestring who, despite everything, can transfix an audience and, through conventional and guerrilla circulation strategies, build sizeable daily newspapers in the 30,000 to 50,000 copies a day range (or as many as 300,000 readers a day).

The Myanmar Times fits into the second category.

The others will die. There is no future for them unless they can morph into smaller, special-interest magazines, probably monthly.

Sporting papers will die. Weekly news journals will go the same way.

That’s about 100 publications that will disappear in the first year alone.

How will media companies be affected when the new ‘daily era’ gets under way? What has been your experience of publishing a daily newspaper in Cambodia?

I am the only person in Myanmar who has first-hand experience in launching daily newspapers, so I am confident I will succeed.

I’ve brought on stream two dailies in Cambodia, in English and in Khmer, and it’s brutal when the competition really starts.

Newspapers are a tough business, and the casualties will mount.

I don’t think about that, because I know I have the knowledge to succeed and I have an experienced team of journalists, as well as production expertise and printing capability.

It’s been decades since we’ve had private-sector dailies, and the younger generation of journalists lacks daily-newspaper experience. How significant a challenge will that be?

There will have to be a sharp rise in the ability of higher-education institutions to train journalists.

And the authorities will have to allow in scores of foreign “technical experts” – reporters, sub-editors, analysts, photographers, designers, printers and  managers.

Becoming a good reporter takes years as it is, but what is lacking here is critical thinking capacity and the ability to identify a good story.

That’s a generational thing, so don’t expect a world-class media too quickly.

The amended Foreign Investment Law gives foreign companies greater incentive to invest in Myanmar. Do you think foreign media companies will consider investing in Myanmar’s media sector?

It would disadvantage the development of the fourth estate if no foreign investment was allowed in the sector.

There’s nothing to be afraid of; foreigners will bring in expertise and capital, and you’re going to need both.

In many other parts of the world, physical newspapers are seen as being on the way out. Can they still be viable here?

Newspaper consumption in South Asia is rising sharply, and there will be a sustained period of demand for daily papers.

But they will need to reach an increasingly sophisticated readership in order to develop loyalty.

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