The People’s Librarian

Before I left Indonesia, I made a promise that I leave with a kenangan — as a gift to remind myself how the country transformed me. A week before my departure, I interviewed Eko Cahyono, the founder of Perpustakaan Anak Bangsa, and the man who I happened to meet sometime in 2016 at a Toastmasters meeting. My name is Eko, he said, and I have a library. “You should come and visit.” I did — and discovered his story.

This piece was first published on Rappler Indonesia


 

 

BEYOND THE RIVERS OF SUKOPURO, in a house built of bricks and stones, a marriage is falling apart. Her husband of 12 years is off to find a new wife — a woman whose womb could continue a lineage.

One morning, in an attempt to distract herself from reality, she leafs through the pages of a book she plucked from a shelf. She wipes her wet cheeks, yet already a fresh stream of tears water the table.

“Mbak Mina,” a familiar voice asks, “why do you weep?”

“My husband is filing a divorce.”

The year is 2003 in Indonesia, and the country is in a ruckus. A series of bomb blasts rock a hotel and an airport in Jakarta. A peace negotiation between the government and Free Aceh Movement collapsed. Meanwhile, a librarian in a small village on the eastern part of Java is baffled: how can he appease a woman at fault for a childless marriage?

Suddenly, Eko’s phone rings, and Mina is left in midair.

The woman speaking on the other line is giving out her back issues of Femina magazine. “There’s 400 of them at home,” she says. “Please take them.” She’s leaving for Surabaya, and the magazines had to go — to someone else’s hands, or to the junk.

He looks at Mina, and tells her to wait. “Someone wants to donate Femina, your favourite read.” He hops on his motorcycle, and the engine revs. The woman lives in Malang City, some 15 kilometres away from Sukopuro, a village in Jabung in the regency of Malang, in between fields of sugar cane and rice paddies.

A couple of hours later, he returns to the library. He shows Mina the magazines that came in a sack. He leaves the second time to take the remaining loot. He would never find her again, except for a note she left on his table

Eko,

I am borrowing four copies of Femina. If my plan to fly to Hong Kong to work as a domestic pushes through, I will have my neighbour return these on my behalf.

Mina

It’s one of those days where he wished there are more things he’s capable of doing, like casting spells on a barren womb, so women didn’t have to live at fault for a marriage that failed.

“But who am I?” he utters in silence. “I’m just a librarian”

His name is Eko Cahyono. To many he is called Mas Eko, a Javanese term of respect towards older men. To others, they call him a recognition-seeker, a freak whose life swirl around piles of papers. To some, a curator of lewd literature.

“At the village,” he once said, “people don’t have much to do but sit idly and chat.”

It was that culture that he wishes to break.

 

 

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THE DAYS of 1998 meander. The leather factory where he works shut down in the wake of a financial crisis. And then jobs became hard to find. To relieve himself from a tormenting repetitive cycle of days, he read all what he could find at home.

One day at the village, he meets an old man scanning through the words printed on a newspaper. The man was reading — upside down. It was in that moment he felt a fire in his belly, and soon his house is transformed into into a public space. At their terrace, he would hang magazines and tabloids on a clothesline. At night when they weren’t reading, they sang. Sometimes, they would discuss about public matters. Right in his family’s house, a library was born.

On some days he would knock on doors. And when a door opens, he smiles at the eyes that emerge from it. “Would you like to donate books?” It was a script that didn’t take a long time to master, except that he had to say repeat such line from one house to another, so they who came will always have something new to read.

He was Nuh and the library was his ship. He moved more than 10 times, until finally a neighbour offered a perfect deal: an empty land beside a peaceful graveyard – for rent. In 2008, there it was, a library built of bamboo and asbestos. He named it Perpustakaan Anak Bangsa, the library of the nation’s child. At the entrance, a pole stands with a flag on top, the emblem of their land.

They came and read, and he takes care of the rest. For a time, together with his sisters, they would sell coffee, cigarettes, and gorengan to pay for electricity. Later his sisters would begin their own families, and he would be on his own. He wrote stories and sold them to newspapers. He manned book fairs. He earned commissions from loan referrals. He did all sorts of jobs to pay the rent. And when they weren’t enough, he sold what he had: his television and a motorycle.

One stormy night, a tree falls and violently crashes the library’s roof. The next morning, he knew something had to be sold again.

Perhaps, he thought, “I could sell one of my kidneys.”


 

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NOBODY IN THE VILLAGE, not even his parents, thought of the idea that an erstwhile factory worker and a high school graduate would become a librarian.

Those who frequently visit fondly call him mas, and loved him dearly. But others thought he was a joke, others called him sok cari nama, or someone who just wanted to gain popularity. They belittled him and talked at his back. Once, police came after they caught wind that he was harboring pornography at the library, even if it were just magazines that tread on sexuality and reproductive health, even if it were just a pile of Femina, a favourite among housewives who felt empowered for reading it.

So when the police who came finding no evidence, they ended up borrowing books.

Here is a library, where readers find company and answer to uneasy questions, like how does a 12-year-old student cope with life when the head of his family, the one who’s supporting them, is only given 6 months to live?

This was the story of Tema, who few years ago run into Eko for advise. He was contemplating of quitting school  — even if he were only months away from graduation. His father’s diabetes has affected his nervous system. An operation had to be performed on top of expensive medications. Someone had to pay the bills, and at that young age Tema felt it had to be him.

Seandainya aku ini orang sakti.” If only I were a man of supernatural powers, Eko said in a thick Javanese accent.

But what can a librarian do?

He tucked books inside his bag. The books were about reflexology, another about ancestral heritage, and the other on traditional medicine. Seven months later, he returned, wearing a high school uniform. It was those books that he lend Tema that gave his father a new lease of life.

Beyond the rivers of Sukopuro, there is a library – and it’s evidently more than that.


 

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JULY 2017. FEW DAYS AFTER LEBARAN. As I came to visit the library to capture the librarian’s life in photographs, a 16-year-old walks into the library. He grabs Eko’s right hand. Gently he presses it into his forehead. He moves to my direction and does the same to mine. He asks whether it’s alright to come in. It’s fine, Eko tells him. He dashes into the comics section, and Eko returns to his table.

“That’s Arif. He stays at a pesantren nearby,” Eko tells me, “so when he’s free, he comes here to take a break from school-related readings. Some fifteen minutes later, the boy, clad in apple green sweatshirt, is one with silence. As he nestles behind a towering bookshelf, a book transports his mind into another world.

On Eko’s table are piles of books, a plate full of rice cake wrapped in banana leaves, some drinking water in plastic cups, nuts and spicy rice chips stored in glass jars.

Another visitor emerges from the doorway. He lifts the tarpaulin, the only material that’s covering it. He shakes our hands, and later asks Mas Eko for Aloe Vera leaves. “That’s another regular visitor, they have livestock at home,” he tells me. Later, he extends his arm for another round of handshakes. He couldn’t stay longer, he says, and lifts the tarpaulin cover. “Salamualaikum.”

The books, tens of thousands of them stored inside this 72-square-metre space, are left unguarded, and it’s meant to be that, Eko says, so people can come and borrow whatever they want. Unlike many libraries, the only rule here is to read.

When UNESCO study revealed that in Indonesia, only 1 out of 1000 people read a book per year, he was one of those who raised an eyebrow: who says Indonesians don’t read?

“At the library the least number of people who come here every day hovers at 50,” he said.

“Indonesians like to read, if they’re given convenient access to libraries. They read, if libraries allow them to read any time of the day, without the usual bureaucracy of requiring them to photocopy their KTP, pay administration fees, and fine them when they couldn’t return the book in a week.”.

Outside the library, a giant mango tree’s shadow falls on a grove of purple boat lilies and snake plants that spiraled from the earth, as if triggered by a recording of a sindhen singer blaring from neighbour’s stereo. There are herbs planted in pots made from cut plastic bottles. A goat bleats, taking turns with the crowing cocks while they scratch their bamboo cages. The smell of burning wood under a boiling pot of rice wafts the air.

It was in 2011 when the library was finally reconstructed into a concrete hall, through the help of donors. And since then, it sits on land it rightfully belongs. On its wall, I see picture frames, medals, and trophies chronicle the history of a library with a whopping 8,000 membership. They are students, factory workers, teachers, and household wives that come here to read from a collection classified in the whims of the librarian: wow memukau (awakening), petunjuk hidup (guide to life), superpower, khusus kutu buku (exclusive for bookworms), super hot, kontroversi (controversies), among others.

They read and borrow, and return the books at their own pace. Yet the books have always found their way back. “I’d like to think that the books are just out there travelling with their readers,” he once told Andy Noya, a celebrated TV host in the country.

Among those on ‘travel’ list is Laskar Pelangi, a fictional story of young students on Belitung island in Sumatra, where the kids and their teachers struggle to keep a lone elementary school in the village running, a familiar story not far different from the library’s: that sometimes, noble acts of kindness arise from those who barely have anything.

The book was away for a good three years beginning in 2006, passing from one hand to another. So in 2008, Andy pledged to give the library 25 copies of it. Another 25 of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, and another for dictionaries. The meek librarian tried his best to contain his happiness as a thunder of applause drowns the studio. It was a moment well-kept in pictures that hang on the wall. Another frame describes Eko as a hero. Beside is a picture of him with President Joko Widodo taken at the Palace in April. At the time the president invited community librarians around the country to discuss what their needs are. On that day, Jokowi promised to ship 10,000 copies of books to each of them. To make it easy for those who support community libraries, the president asked state-owned Pos Indonesia to make shipping free for those who sent books to libraries every 17th of the month.

I asked Eko what’s in his mind as he looks back all the memories that built Perpustakaan Anak Bangsa. “Biasa aja mas,” he tells me. Nothing extraordinary, an expression that embodies self-restraint. That when you’re doing something for the people, do it without putting things into your head.

This is a story of a man who devoted some good twenty years of his life to a noble cause. Fueling people’s interest towards reading through a village library he built in 1998 is a story truly filled with altruism. To ensure people have something to read, says Eko, is a responsibility. His responsibility.

What motivates him to do all these? Now 37, Eko evaded the question, and instead returns to the stories that built the library.


 

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ONE MORNING IN 2007, while attending to the scores of books that gathered dust and webs, a white Toyota Innova parks in front of his house few steps away from the library. He runs out to find out who it was. The door opens, and a woman in high-heels alights. She asks him where the library is. She must be a donor, he thought.

“How are you, Mas Eko?” the woman in beige dress and crimson red skirt grins. She takes off her sunglasses.

“It’s me, Mina.”

For all those times there had been no news about her, he wondered how her life has been, her divorce and her life in Hong Kong.

Do you remember those magazines I borrowed, Mas Eko? She asked. She read them all. It was those pieces of hand-me-downs that taught her how to improve her fertility. Those magazines that once became a piece of controversy, that jeopardized a library — saved a marriage. Her husband retracted a divorce petition on the day Mina’s doctor found life in her womb. She gave birth to twins.

And the air is filled with solace. There was no need for him to possess super powers. To be a librarian—it was more than enough to transform lives.

Few minutes before I wrapped up the day of interviewing Eko, I studied those amiable almond eyes that returned to the pile of books on the table. “These are new donations up for inventory,” he tells me. The azhan reverberates in the air, and the rays of the afternoon sun beam through a tall glass window — forming a circle of light around his head. It was a glimpse of a day in life of the man they call Mas Eko. But perhaps — beyond the rivers of Sukopuro — a village that is home to where children, housewives, labourers, people from all walks of life could educate themselves through the books they read, there is a term that fits him even more: the people’s librarian. ◊

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Toastmasters: My fear of the letter I

 

This is a Toastmasters Project 1 speech I delivered on April 7, 2016, at Malang Toastmasters Club. Project 1 is the first speech project of new Toastmasters members, where they are tasked to introduce themselves to fellow club members.

Esteemed guests, fellow Toastmasters (finally), good evening.

A week ago, Thea told me that introducing one’s self shouldn’t be difficult. You know what? I totally disagree. And tonight I’m going to share to you why

Fear of the letter I

My name is Mick Basa, and over the years, my profession has always been to report the news. As a journalist, my task is to tell the truth without fear . But if there is one thing that journalists are scared of: it is the fear of the letter I.

On the very first day I entered the realm of journalism, my editors made it clear: avoid putting one’s self into your stories. To write in the first person is a mortal sin, almost equivalent to bribery and plagiarism.

So that’s an explanation for those of you who wonder why news reports are never written in the first person. There’s no I, but only he, she, them, and they.

Apart from that, we are told not to disclose our personal views, our political alignment, and religious beliefs. It’s not that they do not matter, but in the spirit of impartiality, these are rules that we ought to abide.

How we introduce ourselves

So here’s how we usually introduce ourselves. We say our our name, and the news organisation we represent. You can say your nationality, but never the presidential candidate you’re voting for.

For nearly 10 years of keeping my personal life from public scrutiny, here’s a journalist trying to do a Project 1 speech — which is breaking the Ice — with the use of the letter I.

But I would like to take this opportunity to get myself used to the letter I.

Indonesia and I

I left the Philippines to take a short break from work in the hope that I could spend time searching for myself.

And what better way to do that by moving to a country with a name that begins with the letter I? Indonesia, a country that’s imagined by many bules as a place for soul searching.

However, instead searching my self, I found myself listening to the stories of the locals. Sometimes, I would take pictures of them. Wherever I go, whatever I do, no matter how far I go, journalism is that mystical ghost that keeps on haunting me.

So, who am I?

Ladies and gentlemen, my dear friends, if you ask me the question who are you over and over again, I don’t think I have an answer apart from this: my sense of self will always be tied to being a journalist.

And here I am standing before you, attempting to do a Project 1 speech — while actually evading the very task of sharing details about my life.

But since I joined Malang Toasters Club, I have not felt the need to refrain myself from sharing you my personal stories. And I thank all of you for sharing your warmth. In fact, I have made friends with some of you here in just a short span of time. Perhaps, without Malang Toastmasters, journalists like me would have no way of bracing the phobia of the letter I.

My dear friends, fellow toastmasters, we all have reasons of joining this club.

Fatur said, it’s for his child.
For Lita: this is her passion.
For Adi, it is to excel in public speaking.

And for me, it is to embrace my fear of the letter I.

So tonight, let me do that by formally introducing myself, using the letter I.

I am Mick Basa, and I am very glad to be a part of this club.

Back to you.

Atenews: where I started doing #journalism

Whenever I’m invited to give a journalism lecture to students, my talk would begin with the account of my love affair with Atenews.

It all began in 2007.

That year, I was Communication/Sociology student who was recovering from being booted off from the Computer Science programme. In high school, I was conditioned by television advertisements of a computer school that a course in computer programming is the way to succeed. I accepted it dogmatically that I laid my ambition to become a lawyer to rest. It was ridiculous. Even advertisements meddle with the hopes and dreams of young people.

Shifting to a new course didn’t help me bring my ambition back, though. Transferring to the Mass Communication programme was more of an escape from the rigorous mathematical problems which students like Computer Science majors go through. Some of my block mates, though, chose MC as a preparatory course for law school. Some of them are doing well as law students. Some hopped from one school to another.

I, on the other hand, became a journalist.

Few days ago, I was again invited to talk on news reporting. The audience are students from the same university I attended six years ago. All are volunteering to publish periodically. New recruits occupied almost half of the function hall’s seating area. Some seemed to be very eager to learn something. Others — drifting away, thinking what could be that pleasant smell wafting from the kitchen.

The students are part of Atenews, Ateneo de Davao’s student-run newspaper. It’s the same campus organisation I belonged to in 2007. It’s the same club that introduced me to journalism, a skill I never thought I would be doing until this day.

So when I’m invited to talk about journalism, I would never fail to recount my two-year campus journalism experience with Atenews, a student news organisation that beautifully-trapped me into journalism. Forever.

Here’s one of the articles I’ve written for Atenews’ March 2009 magazine. The piece is called “Last Minute.”

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Atenews' March 2009 issue with then East Timor President Jose Ramos Horta on the cover. My shot, by the way. :)
Atenews’ March 2009 issue with then East Timor President Jose Ramos Horta on the cover. My shot, by the way. 🙂

Letter from the Editor
Last minute

By Mick Basa

News Editor

MY HUMBLE BEGINNINGS in Atenews started in an interview with Nisa Opalla, the Editor in Chief before Hyangelo & Sonny were put into seat. Nisa, now a good friend of mine, asked me during the interview what a campus publication is. Already a third year Mass Comm major that time – my answer was that a campus publication is a paper that runs for the benefit of the students’ right to information as enshrined by the Campus Journalism Act of 1991.  But after I was accepted as a staff writer and photojournalist, I began to realize that Atenews is more than just a campus paper.

I was then assigned to cover events. Still a neophyte at that time, the thrill and jitters of having to meet public figures and go to events served as increments to my journalistic barometer. I began to meet local and national media practitioners and had the opportunity to talk to them. But more often than not, my tasks were mostly to capture shots of activists at the freedom park that raged against rice crisis, oil price hikes, tuition fee increases and Ms. Arroyo.

That same year, we received criticisms coming from the students for having published stories condemning human rights violations, increasing poverty and some articles about activism and the dilapidated quality of Philippine education  to the point where we were asked whether Atenews was serving the general interest of the students or not.

But what should Atenews really be and what is the general interest of the students? UP Journalism Professor & Columnist Danny Arao tells us that the campus press is the voice of the students in particular and the youth in general. Should issues on education, poverty and human rights part of our concerns?

The following year I was assigned as the news editor. I had the advantage to work hand in hand with the other editors and had the prerogative of assigning reporters on what to cover. The experience in dealing with writers and reminding them of their deadlines and at times reprimanding them for negligence had grew in me an inch of maturity. The bond that had grown during my two-year stay in this publication proved to me that Atenews is more than a campus paper.

Thriving in this small office are young and admittedly inexperienced writers who have learned a lot from reality. They taught me a lot about the greater scheme of things, that when the system running the society persists to widen the gap between the rich and poor, it is just reasonable to criticize and protest the evils that this system has wrought on us.

Atenews is not just about writing news, capturing photos, and creating the lay out. It is where a league of young minds learn some of the most important issues that are inextricably intermingled with our lives. This campus paper of ours prevented me from turning a blind eye on the crucial events of our time.

We honestly admit however, that we do have some shortcomings. English teachers have used our papers as an improvised spot-the-grammatical-errors quiz causing much aggravation to me and my fellow editors. But whether the act was deliberately done to insult us or not is of no particular importance to us. We do not consider ourselves as experts on the English grammar although we recognize that we need some level of command of the language. Yet we cannot deny that we were dismayed by the disrespect shown to us. People must understand that we do not necessarily represent the best writers in the campus but only the ones who have risen up to the call of service.

But for us, at the end of the day, it is our passion in yielding our collective metaphorical pens to seek for and write the truth that counts the most – more than any public perception of our grammatical excellence or the lack of it. We choose not to be silent because silence is the prime spoiler of freedom.

As I conclude what may be my last piece, I have come to realize that, from the very first day I joined Atenews, I chose freedom.

Weathering the tides: newspaper readership in the Philippines and Myanmar

A typical newspaper stand in the Philippines, with people barely taking a glance on what's news for today. (Mick Basa)
A typical newspaper stand in the Philippines, with people barely taking a glance on what’s news for today. (Mick Basa)

Down in Davao, a city in Southern Philippines, a class in a university pass the hat to acquire an Internet domain and web host package for their journalism project: an online news site.

Their project has never been done by previous batches of mass communication majors. The school’s idea was to prepare them into what journalism has turned into today. And the whole idea of migrating from traditional media projects like a newspaper is a reflection of what some mainstream journalists in the Philippines are doing.

Jefrey Tupas, then correspondent for the Philippine Daily Inquirer for more than a decade, is setting up an online news outfit NewsDesk which would be launched come February. He says it’s a realisation of a long-desired platform run by journalists and media workers themselves. Poor and delayed remuneration by big news organisations to provincial correspondents have been a long-standing issue.

“Most of us felt being in a network, funded by media capitalists, was limiting what we are and what we can supposed to do,” he lamented.

Their team is experimenting on what particular business model NewsDesk would operate and Tupas says “we still do not know how we will go through it.”

“We have started from scratch so we are banking on the help of friends. Some are philanthropic enough to help us. But everything came from our own pockets. We are exploring this idea where community will fund the coverage on a certain issue,” he says.

Looking for a lucrative business model is something Carmelito Francisco, editor of Mindanao Times, does not have to worry about, at least for now, as he believes the Philippine media print media industry has continued to thrive unlike what’s happening in Western countries where newspaper readership has dramatically declined.

“The community newspapers can still grow by concentrating on affairs of their host communities,” said Francisco.

With a circulation of 10,000 in Davao, the daily community newspaper competes with three other local dailies, Sun.Star Davao, Mindanao Daily Mirror and Edge Davao, which just recently began publishing from a weekly business newspaper into a daily community paper.

Like Mindanao Times, Sun.Star and EdgeDavao publish an e-copy of their newspaper online to remain relevant in the long time, says Francisco.

“There is no drastic change in so far as readership is considered. But there is already, although gradual, an interaction between the media and their readers (both print and online) and we must sustain this not only to continue attracting these readers but also because this will result in better bottom line,” he says.

But Francisco admits community newspapers have had a hard time as advertisers are shifting to online media.

“Many advertisers even turned to bloggers (many of them pretend to be legitimate journalists),” he said.

Times are changing, he says, and traditional media have to adapt so a newspaper with a developed, interactive website, can sell itself in a wholesale manner to advertisers.

“Remember that in all of media, newspapers have the credibility so with its updated website itself. Of course, many, if not all, newspapers rely on advertisement as not one has existed because of subscription,” he said.

Francisco says there has been no drastic change in readership, although figures have shown a decline in newspaper readership in the Philippines.

In 2006, Raymund Mercado, spokesperson for the Newspaper and Magazine Dealers Association in the Philippines, noted that readership in the Philippines decline by 10 percent a year, saying “fewer young people are buying papers and that older people are getting their news from the net or TV.”

This trend prompts many to jump into conclusions that Filipinos are not “readers” when it comes to news and information consumption.

But Philippine audiences have found Internet to be a better conduit as most of the content they can access online is free.

This is why more and more online news organisations in the Philippines have started to emerge. Last year, Maria Ressa, former senior vice-president of ABS-CBN News and Curent Affairs, left the Philippines’ biggest news network and started her own social news site Rappler.com, producing video newscasts and documentaries as well as the usual text and picture stories you see on online sites. But it does not run a TV channel or a radio station. She calls it convergence.

(Video courtesy of European Journalism Centre)

Because of this trend, newspaper sales have declined due to increased competition from television and Internet, says Francisco.

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Meanwhile, the Philippines ranks fourth highest time spent per visitor on social networking sites in the world, with an average of 7.9 hours, only behind Israel (10.7), Russia (10.3) and Argentina (8.4). And news organisations here have utilised social networks to drive traffic to their online sites.

“Social media can be both a threat and support. The traditional media must and should use it to its advantage rather than fear it. Updating content through Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and the like can enhance the delivery of news,” he says.

“But one good thing about all of this will be compelled to enhance themselves so they cannot be left alone.”

In Myanmar, social media have been working well to the advantage of newsrooms.

Le Yi Myit, senior reporter of The Voice Weekly, one of the two weekly news journals suspended in July 2012 by Myanmar’s Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD) for allegedly violating government regulations, says reporting about natural calamities have been efficient as their audience get the information fast through their Facebook page.

“Sometimes people need to know the information (such as earthquake and flooding) as fast as possible. That’s why we can’t be competitive by circulating on print alone,” says Myit.

And for one, engaging with audience through social media is still a challenge in Myanmar, with efforts to modernise the country’s telecommunications legislation in the works. Phones are also expensive (starting $285) and not to mention – slow Internet speeds.

So Myit believes people in Myanmar will continue to read newspapers as the traditional medium is an ideal conduit to discuss in-depth reportage, something Soung Oo Ko Ko, editor of YC Online News, agrees.

Myanmar’s private newspapers can only publish weekly journals. The government recently announced it would begin issuing licences to private-owned newspapers before they could publish their dailies this April.

Myit says newspaper readership in Myanmar will continue to thrive. Their journal, he says, publishes nearly 100,000 copies. He says the figures significantly climbed after the 2010 elections and the release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

“But now, there is another set of challenges for print media such as competition, talent, market and distribution for the coming daily newspapers,” says Myit.

Censorship in Myanmar loosened up when the government began reforming media regulations in August. So private newspapers like The Voice Weekly no longer have to go through the regulatory board before printing.

But Myit believes as long as there is a need for in-depth and critical journalism, “I don’t think print is going to die.”

“Social media will be able to upload short news immediately. But it cannot publish news analysis,” says Ko.

(A report by Mick Basa, Nay Aung Khine and Wendekhar / Asian Centre for Journalism)