Myanmar police’s intelligence unit has summoned editors of news publications to inquire about their internal operations, including financial records, according to a press group Monday.
But the government insists the meetings are merely “discussions” to gather "basic information" about their operations and that there was nothing to be alarmed about.
Editors of up to six private journals have been quizzed over the last few days by the police Special Branch unit, which is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Home Affairs, local newspapers reported.
Media affairs are usually administered by the Ministry of Information.
Secretary of the Myanmar Journalist Network Myint Kyaw said that at least three journals—Unity Journal, Myanmar Post Weekly, and The Voice—were instructed to visit the Special Branch over the past week, the Mizzima news agency reported.
The Irrawaddy online journal said six private journals have been questioned since Friday, naming the other three as Myanmar Thandawsint, Popular News, and People’s Age.
Myint Kyaw said that journalists were critical of and questioned the motive behind the meetings called by the Special Branch, suggesting that such an action was unheard of even during the decades of military junta rule until 2011.
“It is acceptable to be questioned for any crime, but this form of questioning is not following the set procedures,” he told Mizzima. “If they want to speak to these organizations they should visit them.”
The editors were asked about “income, expenditure, and the newspaper’s circulation,” said Aung Tun Win, who was questioned on behalf of Unity Journal. “They said all newspaper organizations will be questioned.”
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.
Kyaw Min Swe, editor in chief of The Voice weekly journal and daily newspaper, criticized the investigation as unnecessary.
“This is not the Special Branch’s business,” he told the Irrawaddy. “They had no official document from the respective ministry to authorize the investigation. It seems to be a threat to freedom of the media.”
Some editors wondered whether the investigation was linked to government corruption probes, the Irrawaddy said.
Editors of the Myanmar Thandawsint journal, who have been accused of accepting financial support from government ministers, including from former religious affairs minister, Hsan Hsint—who was sacked, detained, and charged with corruption—were also questioned for one and a half hours on Sunday, according to the report.
“The accusations are not true. We receive no support from them—we are standing on our own,” the journal’s deputy chief editor, San Win Tun, was quoted as saying after the newspaper was questioned on Sunday.
He said police did not ask about any links between the paper and Hsan Hsint.
Myanmar’s Interim Press Council, which was set up last year in response to pressure to consult journalists on new press laws, plans to issue a statement about the investigation this week, according Kyaw Min Swe, the council’s secretary.
Government wants 'basic information'
At a media conference Monday, Deputy Minister of Home Affairs Kyaw Kyaw Htun rejected any notion that the meetings with the editors were interrogations.
“We were not interrogating the journal editors. It was just a discussion with them. We asked them to come and see us when it is convenient for them,” he said.
“We want to know basic information such as, which journals are successful and why. Which journals are not successful and why. Something like that. It is not interrogating them.”
Since December 2013, Myanmar authorities have arrested and charged several journalists on apparently politically motivated prosecutions under criminal trespass, defamation, peaceful assembly, and other laws, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said in a report last month.
In March, the government enacted two media laws sharply criticized by Myanmar’s journalists as ushering in a new, more subtle form of censorship.
“International praise for expanding media freedoms in Burma [Myanmar] has been undercut by arrests and intimidation of journalists,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
“This serious backsliding raises concerns about the government’s commitment to a free press.”
Reported by Myo Thant Khine for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.