Myanmar took an important and necessary step on its journey toward establishing an open and democratic society when the Information Ministry announced on its website on Friday that privately owned daily newspapers will be allowed, starting in April, for the first time since 1964. The ministry statement said that any Myanmar national wishing to publish a daily newspaper would be able to submit an application in February and that new dailies would be allowed to begin printing on April 1 in any language.
The move is part of an ongoing liberalisation of the media initiated by the government of President Thein Sein after he took office last year. In August, the government abolished direct censorship of the media and announced that journalists would no longer have to submit their work to state censors before publication.
Myanmar already has state-run dailies which serve as government mouthpieces and more than 180 weeklies, about half of which cover news while the rest focus on sports, entertainment, health and other areas.
The establishment of independent dailies with a far greater potential to create an informed readership and influence events marks a major development.
The necessity of media freedom in a democracy is pretty much taken for granted, and the late Walter Cronkite, the legendary American TV news anchor, went so far as to say: "Freedom of the press is not just important to democracy, it is democracy."
But in congratulating Myanmar on this important milestone, we should remember the words of another respected journalist, Aidan White, currently director of the Ethical Journalism Network, a global campaign promoting good governance and ethical conduct in media, who said: "There can be no press freedom when journalists exist in conditions of corruption, poverty and fear."
Freedom to do their job without the fear of violence is especially crucial, and it is up to the government to protect journalists and demonstrate through arrests and prosecutions that intimidation will not be tolerated when abuse does occur.
This is a tall order in a country in which corruption has been institutionalised as many of the former higher-ups of the old military regime have made a smooth transition to state-run corporations which control most essential public services and commodities. They are also in control of mega-projects that have a vast potential for environmental damage and human rights abuse, such as the Shwe gas pipeline which will take oil from underwater natural gas fields in the Bay of Bengal off Rakhine province to Kunming in southwest China.
The government cracked down on a protest at a mining project in Monywa in Sagaing Division that is a joint venture between the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings and a Chinese subsidiary of an arms manufacturer. The crackdown left dozens of unarmed demonstrators injured, the majority of them Buddhist monks, prompting some observers to say that Thein Sein was showing his "true colours". In other words, his commitment to reform does not include stepping on the toes of the old regime. Whether that is true remains to be seen.
Independent dailies will also have to deal with more practical difficulties. According to an article in the Irrawaddy online news magazine, media sources may find it difficult to come up with enough capital to enter the daily newspaper market at first.
On the bright side, although the media in Myanmar has been under a tight leash since 1964, the institution is surprisingly robust and professional, largely because of a longstanding exile media operating mostly out of northern Thailand, including the Irrawaddy out of Chiang Mai. Journalists have been allowed to return home at long last as part of President Thein Sein's reforms, and many have done so and are already plying their trade in the hopes of speeding the country's transformation along.
They are joined by a slew of foreign correspondents eager to report on one of the most remarkable international stories of recent years as well as local journalists who did the best they could under the old regime and are now testing their new freedoms.