By Andrew R.C. Marshall
NAYPYITAW (Reuters) - The New Light of Myanmar has an image problem. That's putting it mildly.
Created in 1993 as the mouthpiece of a military junta, the newspaper once described democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi as "obsessed by lust and superstition," while praising the achievements of generals who kept Myanmar in poverty and fear. Its nickname was "The New Lies of Myanmar."
Now, with the junta gone and a reformist government in power, the mouthpiece is getting a makeover.
"Feel free to ask me any question! We are very transparent now!" cries Than Myint Tun, its affable, betel-nut-chewing editor-in-chief during a Reuters tour of the state-run newspaper, the first by the international media.
The New Light is the country's only English-language daily -- but not for long. Among its reforms since taking power last year, Myanmar's quasi-civilian government has effectively scrapped censorship, boosting an already vibrant weekly newspaper scene. It will allow the publication of privately owned dailies from early 2013.
With competition looming, the long-derided New Light is battling for relevance and readers.
Hate-filled propaganda has been replaced by lively editorials and entertainment news. Cartoons that once showed Suu Kyi as a toothless crone now comment on hot issues such as political transparency and the popularity of Western dress.
And a black-and-white newspaper notorious for leaving its readers with inky fingers is finally experimenting with color. All editions of the New Light and its Burmese-language sister titles, Myanma Alin and Kyemon, will appear in color by mid-December.
The overhaul is part of an ambitious plan to revamp Myanmar's lackluster state-run television and print media with a public service mandate.
"When the media is too commercialized it will fail to present the interests of vulnerable groups, such as ethnic minorities, women and youth," Ye Htut, Myanmar's deputy Minister of Information, told Reuters. "So that area should be covered by the state media."
"SKYFUL OF LIES"
Reforming an Orwellian propaganda organ won't be easy. The New Light has few resources, no journalistically trained staff, and an office located a 40-minute drive from the already isolated capital Naypyitaw.
Than Myint Tun, 50, graduated in English from Mandalay University, then spent 14 years in the army before leaving in 2000 to join the newspaper. "I'm ex-army," he says, before introducing other members of the 26-strong editorial team. "He was a veterinarian. He was an engineer." He flashes a ragged smile. "We are very strange men."
Today, the newspaper might feel like a student rag overseen by eccentrics -- in a field. But in the past, under the junta, it was dreary and vicious.
Most stories and photographs showed retired dictator Than Shwe or his fellow generals inspecting roads and bridges, receiving blessings from Buddhist monks or lecturing morose-looking civilians.
The newspaper called Suu Kyi a woman who "swings around a bamboo pole brushed with cess", routinely denounced the Western media ("VOA and BBC airing skyful of lies"), and exhorted readers to "crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy."
It also put a favorable spin on the junta's well-documented human rights abuses.
In 2003, for instance, hundreds of government thugs attacked Suu Kyi's convoy at the northern town of Depayin. At least four of her bodyguards were killed, said Human Rights Watch, with credible reports of dozens more deaths. Amid global outrage, the junta put Suu Kyi under house arrest again and didn't release her until November 2010.
The newspaper claimed Suu Kyi's supporters had hurled stones at locals staging a peaceful protest and accused her of committing "acts counter to democracy."
Then, in 2007, dozens of people were killed after pro-democracy protests led by Buddhist monks were crushed by soldiers and police with live ammunition, savage beatings and mass arrests. The newspaper claimed security forces had used "the least force to disperse the mob" and blamed the unrest on "hot-blooded monks."
Reforming the state-run media will mean winning back a deeply suspicious public. "People see the state media as just a government mouthpiece," says deputy minister Ye Htut. "We have to change this perception. That's our major challenge."
He believes the newspaper also has a "unique role" to play in informing the world about Myanmar's transformation.
SEX, DRUGS AND CRIME
Some stories in the new-look New Light remain stultifyingly parochial ("Lost air-conditioner found in paddy field"). Others have dubious news value ("Religious Affairs Minister deals with religious matters").
Increasingly, however, the newspaper provides a daily snapshot of a once-isolated nation undergoing rapid change.
There are reports of deadly road accidents, a by-product of a recent surge in car imports, and frequent stories on drug busts as Myanmar struggles to contain a home-grown epidemic of methamphetamine use.
Crime was a taboo topic under the former junta, which liked to laud the peace and stability of its rule. Now, stories range from major timber rackets to minor roadside robberies.
The newspaper also translates the proceedings of Myanmar's surprisingly feisty parliament.
With no native English speakers on staff, spelling mistakes abound. A recent report misspelled the word "tical," an archaic unit of mass equivalent to about 16 grams or half an ounce. Thus a man was robbed of a necklace "weighing three tickles."
Its reporters rarely report. Instead, they sit and translate articles from Myanma Alin, Kyemon and the Myanmar News Agency, whose offices occupy the same compound.
"It's all about translating. Just translating," says Thet Ko Ko, 26, who joined the newspaper five years ago. "And when parliament is in session, we have to work seven days a week."
The New Light owes its far-flung location to strict zoning rules that banish factories - including printing presses - from the city center. Built from scratch under the former junta, Naypyitaw is already a five-hour drive north of the commercial capital Yangon.
While its youthful reporters grumble about the isolation, its middle-aged editors claim to enjoy country life.
"I like the peace and quiet," says Than Myint Tun. Even so, he camps out at the office because he finds his government-issue apartment nearby too lonely without his wife and three daughters, who live in Yangon.
There are plans to move the newsroom closer to Naypyitaw and re-open editorial offices in Yangon.
HOLD THE FRONT PAGE
Junta-era editorial policies still hold sway. State-run newspapers must report, in dutifully numbing detail, the movements of top officials. When Myanmar was a global pariah, its military leaders didn't travel much, their movements restricted by Western visa bans.
But Myanmar's reformist president Thein Sein is a globetrotter, and the newspaper must dedicate acres of newsprint to covering his recent trips to China, the United States and South Korea.
Recently, the president shared the headlines with Suu Kyi, whose September trip to the United States was proudly covered by Myanmar's state-run media, another radical department from the old days.
A total of 13,000 copies are printed daily and, with colour pages attracting new advertisers, the newspaper hopes one day to be financially self-sufficient. Than Myint Tun is clearly dreaming big.
"I have a question," he says. "What do you think of the paparazzi? Should their photos have a place in a newspaper?"
(Reporting By Andrew R.C. Marshall, Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)