Myanmar Army-backed and state-owned mobile network operators have blocked two news websites amid the internet shutdown in Myanmar’s war-stricken northern Rakhine state, employees at both news outlets told RFA on Friday.
Military-backed Mytel and state-owned enterprise Myanma Posts and Telecommunications (MPT) have blocked the websites of Rakhine-based Development Media Group (DMG) and Narinjara News.
Both media outlets have been reporting on the fighting between Myanmar forces and the rebel Arakan Army (AA) in the region and alleged rights abuses against civilians committed by government troops.
DMG web editor Nyo Tun said the news outlet’s website was blocked by the two telecom network operators on March 24, but is still accessible on Norwegian operator Telenor's network.
“I am unhappy that the DMG and Narinjara News websites have been blocked,” he said.
“Both of our websites have been blocked, [which] means that they did it intentionally,” he added. “We just need to inform the MPC [Myanmar Press Council] and the Ministry of Communications about this.”
The Post and Telecommunications Department (PTD) under Myanmar’s Ministry of Communications and Transport issued orders last week for mobile internet service providers to block more than 200 websites and online pages, including ones featuring child pornography, explicit material, and hate speech, as well as 50-odd websites it considers “fake news.”
Narinjara News editor Khine Myat Kyaw said that the telecom companies cut off service to his organization’s website in error.
“I think they [the telecom operators] misunderstood,” he told RFA. “We registered our website with the Ministry of Information, and millions of people visit it.”
“We are going to discuss it with the Myanmar Press Council, lawyers, and IT people as we work on this problem,” he said.
PTD director general Myo Swe said the two news outlets should file a complaint with the ministry if their internet service has been blocked in error, explaining that they are not publishing prohibited reports.
“We ordered not only one [telecom] operator, but also many others to ban pornography, fake news, and hate news websites because we are seeing more reports of child rape cases,” he said, in an apparent reference to the 2019 case of a toddler who was sexually assaulted at a nursery school in Naypyidaw, which sparked national outrage.
The official directive to the mobile network companies appeared to be unrelated to the government’s designation this week of AA, which is fighting Myanmar forces in Rakhine state, as an unlawful association and terrorist organization.
The Myanmar government has temporarily suspended mobile internet service in eight townships in northern Rakhine and one in neighboring Chin state where armed conflict has occurred, citing the ban as a security measure.
“The order is not only for Rakhine state, but also for the entire country,” Myo Swe said of the latest blocking of specific websites.
Order is ‘unreasonable’
Myint Kyaw, a member of the Myanmar Press Council, which investigates and settles press disputes and protects media workers in Myanmar, said the government should make decisions to cut off network connectivity based only on violations of media ethics.
“If any government agency bans a news organization, it should be factually based on the premise of a violation of media ethics,” he told RFA. “It should not be mixed with other fake news sites, so it [the order] is unreasonable.”
“Banning these media sites by government-related telecom companies is nothing but censoring the news groups under the blankets of terrorism and the coronavirus outbreak,” he added.
Telenor told the Yangon-based news magazine Frontier Myanmar that the ministry issued the directive under Section 77 of the Telecommunications Law, which allows the government to order telecom license-holders to block sites in “emergency situations.”
The Norwegian company also said it rejected the directive to block the 50-some so-called fake news sites, including those of DMG and Narinjara News.
The two news websites can also be accessed on the network of Qatar-based Ooredoo, an international mobile internet company that provides wireless service in Myanmar.
The implementation of the government’s directive has not been consistent, and some of the restrictions appear to have been rolled back on Friday, particularly on Ooredoo’s network, Frontier Myanmar said.
DMG was established in 2012 along the Thailand-Myanmar border, but later moved its operations to Rakhine’s capital Sittwe. Narinjara News began publishing in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 2001, and moved its operations to Sittwe in 2014.
Reported by Waiyan Moe Myint for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.