Press Panel Questions Legality of Probe into Myanmar Journals

A Myanmar media group launched a signature campaign Tuesday questioning the legality of a police investigation into the internal operations of the country’s news publications, calling the probe a “threat to media freedom.”

A Myanmar media group launched a signature campaign Tuesday questioning the legality of a police investigation into the internal operations of the country’s news publications, calling the probe a “threat to media freedom.”

In recent weeks, the country’s police intelligence unit summoned editors of news publications to inquire about their business procedures, including financial records, though the government insists the meetings are merely “discussions” to gather “basic information” and that there is nothing to be alarmed about.

On Tuesday, Myanmar’s Interim Press Council, which was set up last year in response to pressure to consult journalists on new press laws, began a 10-day campaign to collect signatures for a petition calling on parliament to determine whether the probe was a violation of media rights.

The investigation can be seen as “an infringement of the freedom of expression,” the council said in a statement, urging the police Special Branch unit of the Home Affairs Ministry to reveal what information it had asked journals to provide and to inform the press panel before questioning editors in the future.

News editor and Press Council member Zaw Thet Htwe told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the panel aimed to alert lawmakers to the Special Branch’s potential abuse of rights through the petition.

“We will send these signatures to parliament and ask lawmakers whether the Special Branch has the power or right to question news journals—if not, the parliament can summon the Special Branch and question them about it,” he said.

“We are doing it because we think that it is an indirect threat to media freedom. We are going to send these signatures to parliament to let the MPs know that people have lost their rights. Then, the Minister of Home Affairs can be made aware of what is going on.”

Media affairs are usually administered by the Ministry of Information.

Local media has reported that at least six private journals—including Unity Journal, Myanmar Post Weekly, The Voice, Myanmar Thandawsint, Popular News, and People’s Age—were instructed to visit the Special Branch in recent weeks.

Aung Tun Win, an editor for Unity Journal, told RFA last week that the questioning had focused on income, expenditure, and newspaper circulation, and that “all newspaper organizations will be questioned.”

Some in the media have suggested that the investigation was linked to official corruption probes, after editors at the Myanmar Thandawsint journal, who have been accused of accepting financial support from government ministers, were questioned. The journal’s editors have denied the accusations.

Last year, President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government allowed private dailies for the first time in decades. But many are believed to be struggling to survive.

Backsliding on freedom

On Tuesday, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement that Myanmar’s authorities were using concerns over potential money laundering as an excuse to justify intimidation of the country’s press.

The investigation is “a subtle form of pressure to curb the confidence of the Burmese media,” said David Scott Mathieson, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, noting that press freedoms in Myanmar since the end of military rule in 2011 had been touted as an indication of the country’s reform progress.

“Yet now even on this key indicator, the government has been backsliding,” he said.

Since December, Myanmar authorities have arrested and charged several journalists on what Human Rights Watch alleged were politically motivated prosecutions under criminal trespass, defamation, peaceful assembly, and other laws.

And in March, the government enacted two media laws sharply criticized by Myanmar’s journalists as ushering in a new, more subtle form of censorship.

“The Burmese government needs to cease sinister threats, release imprisoned journalists, and permit the media to do their crucial work to report without state interference on fast-moving developments in the nation’s politics, society, and economy,” Mathieson said.

He called on the international community to speak out against violations of media rights in Myanmar.

“Freedom of the press is like a weather vane measuring the winds of official commitment to reform. Right now, all indicators are showing the wind is blowing the wrong way regarding freedom of the press in Burma.”