In a rare court victory for the media in reform-embracing Burma, a judge ruled Wednesday that a news magazine need not disclose to the government the name of a reporter who filed a controversial story about corruption.
The Ministry of Mines had filed a defamation suit against the Voice weekly journal, demanding that it reveal the author of the article published in March about misappropriation and irregularities in the accounts of several government ministries.
But the court dismissed the ministry's application on hearing arguments from both sides at a hearing Wednesday, the Voice's editor-in-chief Kyaw Min Swe told RFA.
"Both sides put up our arguments on the issue and finally the judge gave a verdict that they have no grounds for asking for the reporter's name," he said.
Hearing on the defamation suit will continue on June 6.
In the March report, the Voice, citing a report from the auditor general's office to the parliament's public accounts committee, charged that accounts of ministries such as those in charge of information, agriculture, industry and mines had been misappropriated from 2009-2011.
It particularly said that the Ministry of Mines sold 50 percent of shares in the Monywa copper mine, owned by the ministry, to local industrial conglomerate the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UMEHL), but that a foreign company paid the money on behalf of UMEHL.
“All of the facts are reliable,” Kyaw Min Swe said. “We’ve got a 36-page report. [In] fact, our news does not contain all the details of the report. The details of it are more serious,” he was quoted by exile Mizzima News Agency as saying.
The court ruling on Wednesday means the Voice will be allowed to protect its reporter's name, lawyer Win Shwe told The Associated Press.
Since a nominally civilian government replaced decades of harsh military rule in March last year, Burma has released imprisoned bloggers, softened official censorship, and had fewer reports of harassment and attacks against journalists, according to independent watchdog Freedom House's recent report that reviewed developments in 2011.
The Southeast Asian nation also saw an increase in the number of private media outlets, which led to somewhat more diversity of content and less self-censorship, the report said. In addition, a number of exiled journalists were able to return to the country.
Despite the improvements, the media environment remains restricted with censorship controls.
In an indication of the fragile political situation, the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division, which requires media outlets to submit articles for approval before publication, has not allowed local media to report on the resignation in early May of hardline vice-president Tin Aung Myint Oo. It warned journals that they will face disciplinary action if they do so.
Burmese censorship rules generally apply to two categories of newspapers and magazines.
One group of 178 publications focusing on education, economics, international news, art, general knowledge, health, sports, children’s literature, and technology are not required to submit their reports to censors prior to publication.
The other group of more than 180 publications focusing on local news, religion, and crime have to submit all articles and photographs to censors prior to publication.
“Censorship should not be imposed at every step of a publication from registration of news media to distribution,” said a statement issued by the Myanmar (Burma) Journalists Association Organizing Committee (MJAOC) on World Press Freedom Day this month.
Reported by RFA's Burmese service. Translated by Nyein Shwe. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.