Myanmar’s government announced Wednesday that it plans to take legal action against the local Eleven Media Group (EMG) for publishing an article alleging official corruption in the purchase of a printing press, but the media company stood its ground, saying it had evidence to back its claim.
In a statement carried by the official Global New Light of Myanmar, the Ministry of Information said that the story published in the June 2 edition of the Weekly Eleven News Journal had misstated facts about the deal.
It said that EMG had refused to correct its article after negotiations through Myanmar’s Interim Press Council, which was set up last year in response to pressure to consult journalists on new press laws, and that the ministry would proceed with legal action.
“Although the [ministry] negotiated two times for correction of the false statement through the Myanmar Press Council (MPC), the EMG replied that it will by no means correct its news story and there is no reason to negotiate with the MPC,” the statement said.
“As the statement of the EMG has tarnished the image of civil services under the ministry as well as officials from the Procurement Committee of the Ministry of Information, the [ministry] has to take legal action against the media group unavoidably in order to seek justice in the judicial pillar.”
Aung Kyaw Soe, director of the Ministry of Information, confirmed the legal action to RFA’s Myanmar Service, without providing further details.
Wai Phyo, chief editor of EMG newspaper the Daily Eleven, told RFA that the news group would stand by its article.
“We have strong evidence and facts and we will take full responsibility for what we have published, even if this ends up in court,” he said, adding that EMG had not received any official notice that legal action would be taken against it.
The Weekly Eleven article questioned whether a Public Service Media Law being forwarded to parliament favors state-owned media, and alleged misuse of public revenue by the Ministry of Information over suspiciously high prices it had paid for a printing press.
According to Weekly Eleven, the ministry paid U.S. $400,000 more for a printing press than what an Indian company had quoted it for the same machine, suggesting that officials had pocketed the difference. The news group also questioned the property and wealth of officials, including information minister Ye Htut.
On June 6, the Ministry of Information held a press conference to deny allegations in the article, but the following day, Weekly Eleven published a second article reinforcing its initial claims.
Eleven Media Group initially joined in mediation meetings with the Ministry of Information through the MPC, but when neither side could agree to a compromise, it pulled out of negotiations, prompting the government to initiate legal action, according to the statement in the Global New Light of Myanmar.
Wai Phyo maintained Wednesday that Weekly Eleven had written its article based on “what Ye Htut had said during [an earlier] meeting.”
Myint Kyaw, a member of the MPC’s complaints committee, told RFA that the government’s actions were not indicative of a clampdown on the press, one year after President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government allowed private dailies for the first time in decades.
“We can’t say every lawsuit is a threat to press freedom,” he said.
“Anybody can file a lawsuit against anyone else. If the judicial system is fair, the right side will win.”
Journalist Sithu Aung Myint agreed that the dispute was like any other between two parties, and not about the government trying to exert greater control over the press.
“As far as I know, it is not related to press freedom,” he said.
“It is simply a battle between two parties.”
However, the government announcement comes as the Ministry of Information is preparing to take a second publication—The Myanmar Herald—to court after also failing to mediate a compromise despite holding several discussions through the MPC.
According to a report by The Myanmar Times, the ministry alleges that interviews the Herald published with political scientist Myo Yan Naung Thein and senior opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party official Tin Oo contained criticism of the president that was “extreme.”
The ministry asked for an apology from the journal’s editors but they refused to comply.
The Times quoted Herald deputy editor Aung Kyaw Min as saying that his publication was “not wrong.”
“We just published the comments of a political scientist and an NLD leader on the flaws and inefficiencies of the government led by the current president,” it quoted him saying.
Aung Kyaw Min said that last month the Herald offered the ministry an apology “to the extent possible,” but officials were unsatisfied.
The Times said it is unclear whether the cases against Eleven and the Herald will be criminal or civil, but noted that under Myanmar’s Penal Code, defamation carries a jail term of up to two years.
Reported by Khin Maung Soe, Yadanar Oo and Kyaw Min Htun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.