Burma’s first privately owned English-language daily newspaper in 50 years, Myanma Freedom Daily, is suspending publication from 1 April. The decision was announced on the cover of the 31 March edition, stating that the suspension will last “for a while”, adding that it will be back “soonest.”
Editor-in-Chief Thiha Saw, a veteran journalist who launched the newspaper last year after receiving one of the first licenses awarded by the government to print a private daily, told DVB: “We’ll be closed for one month – or two months max. Our editorial team isn’t going to change and our content isn’t going to change, but we need to restructure our business model.”
“Everybody’s shocked,” said managing editor Nyan Win.
“We’ve been trying so hard for the past two months – we were trying up until this morning. It’s a complicated story of investment matters, but basically we’re looking for a new investor,” he told DVB on Monday.
Myanma Freedom Daily was funded by family and friends; posing a stark contrast to the majority of other newspapers in Burma, which have the financial backing of local tycoons.
Thiha Saw said he’d been in talks with potential investors that morning and will spend the next four to eight weeks meeting others. He said that the need to travel both abroad and domestically would hamper the day-to-day operations of the newspaper, which was another factor in the decision to suspend its publication, along with the likelihood of moving its office from Bo Myat Tun Street in Pazundaung Township, “depending on the requirements of the new investor.”
Myanma Freedom Daily had a circulation of 10,000 copies a day and in a 31 March editorial it was stated that the electronic version of the newspaper had just exceeded 100,000 clicks.
“We’ve received a lot of messages of support from our readers,” he said.
However Thiha Saw cautioned that Burma’s media landscape is changing so quickly that by the time his newspaper re-emerges, competition may be even fiercer.
“There’s a price war going on and our new business model will have to take that into account. The Yangon Times Daily is just 50 kyat (US$0.05) a copy, as is the [state-run] New Light of Myanmar; and Eleven is the same price as us [120 kyat per copy]. It will take some time for The Myanmar Times to go daily, but there are so many newspapers now and some of them have deep pockets. They can afford the high operational overheads it takes to run a daily paper.”
Thiha Saw, who is also a member of the Interim Press Council and vice-president of the Myanmar Journalists Association, voiced criticism of the draft Public Service Media Law, which would see state-run media, such as The New Light of Myanmar, transformed into a government-funded, yet independently monitored media service.
The Interim Press Council has opposed the bill since it was first submitted to parliament last year. Several prominent members of the media have criticised the bill – whose details remain vague – for potentially allowing state-run media to outrun its private rivals on the basis of having access to funds from the state budget and a lack of transparency in regulation.
“The government isn’t attempting to confer any benefits on privately run media, such as giving us a two-year tax free period,” said Thiha Saw.
The suspension of Myanma Freedom Daily serves as a reminder that times are uncertain for journalists in Burma. The newspaper’s 40-odd staff were reportedly stunned by the announcement on Monday morning. Its offices and equipment were almost deserted by noon.
One staff member, who declined to be named, said, “This has totally messed up my April. I was even hoping it was just an April Fool’s joke.”
* EDITOR’S NOTE: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Myanma Freedom Daily had received initial funding from the UK-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI). We apologise for the error.