Burma’s Special Branch Investigates Finances of News Journals

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 23 June 2014

RANGOON — The Special Branch of Burma’s police force is investigating the financial records of private local news journals, editors say.

Editors of six private journals have been questioned since Friday by Special Branch (SB) officers, who reportedly wanted to know how the journals have managed to stay afloat in a difficult market for print media.

The editors—who lead The Voice, Unity journal, Myanmar Thandawsint, the Myanmar Post, Popular News and People’s Age—said they did not know why their finances were of interest to the SB, which reports directly to the Ministry of Home Affairs. Some wondered whether the investigation was linked to government corruption probes.

The SB officers said they planned to investigate all private journals, as well as state newspapers and journals belonging to political parties, the editors said.

“They said they just want to know the financial details of some journals—who is the financier, what are the expenses, what is the circulation, and how are they surviving while journals lose money every week,” said Than Htike Thu, the editor in chief of the Myanmar Post, who was questioned at his journal’s office in Botahtaung Township on Saturday evening.

“We had to answer correctly, but I wondered what their motives were,” he added. “They said they were just doing as they were ordered.”

He said he was summoned for further questioning at the SB branch in Kyauktada Township but declined to go because he had committed no crime.

“They want to check our financial status, but it’s not their business. This would be the responsibility of the Department of Internal Revenue,” he said.

He wondered if the investigation of print media was linked to a corruption probe involving the country’s former religious affairs minister, who was fired from his post last week. “There might be many reasons behind this,” Than Htike Thu said.

Editors of the Myanmar Thandawsint journal, who have been accused of accepting financial support from ministers, including from the former religious affairs minister, Hsan Hsint, were also questioned for one and a half hours on Sunday.

“The accusations are not true. We receive no support from them—we are standing on our own. We were checked by the SB yesterday,” said the journal’s deputy chief editor, San Win Tun, adding that the police did not ask about Hsan Hsint.

Kyaw Min Swe, editor in chief of The Voice weekly journal and daily newspaper, criticized the investigation of journals as unnecessary.

“This is not the Special Branch’s business,” he said. “They had no official document from the respective ministry to authorize the investigation. It seems to be a threat to freedom of media.”

In a post on his personal Facebook account after the questioning, he wrote,” Have we done anything that is not in accordance with existing laws?”

“We don’t take support from anyone,” he wrote. “We have also been accused of writing to promote the government, but we have written about many reforms and about elections, to encourage the public to vote, and we have received many warnings from the censorship board in the past. Six times our license has been suspended, and we have been sued by the Ministry of Mines.

Editors of the Unity journal could not be reached for comment. Earlier this year, four journalists and the chief executive of the journal were detained after publishing a story about an alleged chemical weapons factory in central Burma.

The editors of Popular News and People’s Age say they were questioned on Friday.

In April of last year, private dailies were allowed to launch for the first time in several decades in Burma. But many have struggled to survive, with reports that some dailies are losing up to US$3,000 per day.

“Of course, we are losing every week, but we can still survive. They have seen the money we are spending and where it comes from, and we have no secrets. That’s why we can answer their questions,” Than Htike Thu said.

“In the past, some media have been strongly supported by cronies and ministers. So there are questions about how they can sell a copy for 100 kyats,” he said, when production costs are about 300 kyats. “Maybe SB wants to know if they are damaging the market rate, and if that’s the case, we welcome the investigation. If not, we condemn this act.”

Burma’s Interim Press Council plans to issue a statement about the investigation of print media on Wednesday, according Kyaw Min Swe, who is also the council’s secretary.