RANGOON — The New Light of Myanmar, Burma’s English-language government newspaper, will relaunch as a broadsheet within the next two to three months, according to its chief editor.
Than Myint Tun said that “approximately at the beginning of March we will relaunch The New Light of Myanmar.”
The chief editor hinted to The Irrawaddy that The New Light of Myanmar—long-derided as vehicle for Panglossian government PR—will have a gravitas-laden new look.
“We will have a broadsheet, as opposed to the current tabloid format, and will have a wide variety of news,” he said.
Last year, newspaper staff and government ministers said that they hoped to see the new version of the newspaper launch in time for the recently-concluded Southeast Asia Games, a regional athletics competition which was held in Burma for the first time since 1969.
Now the target, it seems, is to have the new-look ‘New Light’ ready in time for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summits to be held in Burma this year.
Burma is chairing Asean, the ten-country, Southeast Asian regional bloc, for the first time. Burma was granted the 2014 chair in late 2011, in what was an acknowledgement of the political reforms undertaken by the Thein Sein government—changes which include the ending of government censorship and permission for foreign news agencies to operate in Burma.
The New Light of Myanmar is itself benefitting from these liberalizations, with staff at the newspaper receiving what Than Myint Tun called “technical support” from Japanese news agency Kyodo over recent months.
“There is no financial support involved, but Kyodo is teaching our staff how to use printing presses and other technology,” said Than Myint Tun.
Two reporters from The New Light of Myanmar travelled to Tokyo during 2013, where they were given journalism training by Kyodo staff. “They have returned to Myanmar and now can write much better in English,” said Than Myint Tun.
And revamping the staid and easy-to-lampoon “New Light” means that Than Myint Tun is also on the lookout for new staff.
“We are trying to build the capacity of our current team,” he said. “But we need new reporters as well as native speakers [of English] to work as copy editors,” he added.
A new Public Service Media Bill is likely to come before Burma’s Parliament in 2014, with the measure including a proposal to keep putting public money into The New Light of Myanmar and other government Burmese-language newspapers, such as Kyemon and Myanma Ahlin.
The overhaul of state media and creation of Burmese public service broadcasting has been generally well-received, but the Interim Press Council (IPC) has criticized continued government funding for public service newspapers as it would give the papers unfair advantages over Burma’s fledgling private media.
“They already have support of the government in logistics, and get advertising,” said Myint Kyaw of the IPC, a journalist lobby group that has long been at loggerheads with the government over media reforms.
“Public funding for government newspapers will mean the playing field is not level, especially for private daily newspapers that are new here,” he said.
Daily newspapers published by private operators returned to Burma on April 1 2013, after previously being banned under the military government, with the permitted weekly newspapers having to run content by a censor.
Content-wise, it remains to be seen whether or not the new version of The New Light of Myanmar can successfully shed its government-spin skin.
The New Light of Myanmar was part-privatized in in a 2013 deal, giving 49 per cent of the newspaper to Global Direct Link, and with the Ministry of Information retaining a 51 per cent stake.
This arrangement, believes Ko Ko, publisher of The Yangon Times, means that the revamped New Light will not have editorial independence.
“It is hard to see how it will leave the propaganda behind under this arrangement,” he told The Irrawaddy.
Ko Ko has long-term plans to launch an English-language newspaper in Burma, so is a potential competitor for The New Light of Myanmar.
But he feels that the appetite for news in English is limited, even in reforming Burma, meaning that new market entrants are likely to struggle.
“You can see the new Freedom Daily is having a tough time, and the same could be the case for The New Light of Myanmar,” he said. “Even graduates who speak good English prefer to read news in Burmese,” he concluded.