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Print Media Thrive In Myanmar, Where Internet Is Limited


Print media are struggling in the U.S. and Europe, but in many Asian countries, including China and India, newspapers are thriving. Another example is Myanmar, also known as Burma. There, only 1 percent of people have access to the Internet and private daily newspapers are rushing into print after decades of being banned. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports on how Burmese journalists are exercising newfound freedoms.


ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Myanmar's third largest city, Mawlamyine, celebrated a wild and wet annual water festival this year. Young punks and goths cruised the streets on their motorcycles. They drenched each other in a massive water fight, which symbolically washed away their sins. If people were partying as if they've been saving it up for years, it's because the festival was banned during decades of military rule until just last year.

Journalists here, meanwhile, have been celebrating the easing of censorship. For six decades until last summer, every report had to be approved by censors in Yangon before it could be published. Chis Alwin(ph), who's an editor at the Than Lwin Times here, describes the system as nearly unworkable.

CHIS ALWIN: (Through Translator) We had to delete the censored parts by ourselves and then resubmit the censored version in person. It took nearly two days to make the roundtrip journey to Yangon and about one week to put out the journal.

KUHN: Beginning last month, the government lifted a half-century-old ban on the publication of private daily newspapers. The Than Lwin Times' managing editor, Min Min Nwe, says that his journal only has a weekly circulation of 35,000 copies and it's struggling financially. But the reforms have fired up his and his colleagues morale.

MIN MIN NWE: (Through Translator) We have nothing. We don't even own this room. But we do have the desire to publish our own daily paper one day. Now, we feel more confident and happy. We feel we are in the right.

KUHN: Journalists say they're navigating a new landscape with its own pitfalls. While censorship has eased, now they have to worry about officials they criticize suing them for libel. Chis Alwin says officials are not the only ones they have to be careful not to offend.

ALWIN: (Through Translator) Sometimes there is news that does not directly affect the government but affects some individual political party or insurgent group. We're neutral, but sometimes we're still threatened.

KUHN: Mawlamyine has a freewheeling spirit, unlike any other Burmese city. It was once part of the Mon Kingdom, which was an independent nation until the 16th century. It's now part of Mon State, a third of which is under rebel control. Eighty percent of the state's 3 million people are ethnic Mon and a third of them speak, read and write Mon.

Now, for the first time in decades, Mon journalists can publish in their own language. But managing editor Min Min Nwe says that for now the issue of independence for Mon State is still one they can't write about.

NWE: (Through Translator) Mon national identity has been lost for 300 years. Our ultimate aim is to build an independent nation. But in the current situation, it's not something we can do yet.

KUHN: As the celebration continues in the streets, the journalists hear a troubling but false rumor that's going around. It says that Buddhists are preparing weapons for an attack on minority Muslims. There's a dangerous lack of information, and residents are worried. So the journalists take to the street to dispel the rumor, and they get the news out the old-fashioned way: by word of mouth. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
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