Myanmar Journalists Furious as Govt Blocks Over 200 Websites Including News Pages

By Htun Htun 1 April 2020

YANGON—A number of registered online news agencies have filed complaints with the Myanmar Press Council after they found themselves among some 200 websites blocked by mobile network operators at the order of the Myanmar government.

Among the news websites blocked by mobile network operators are Rakhine-based Narinjara News and Development Media Group (DMG), Mandalay-based Mandalay In-Depth News and Voice of Myanmar (VOM) and Tachileik-based Mekong News. All of them said they are officially registered with the Ministry of Information.

“This has caused serious damage to our reputation and profits. We are officially registered and they should scrutinize the situation carefully before blocking us,” said Mandalay In-Depth News Chief Editor U Maung Tar, aka U Aung Hsan Oo.

The Posts and Telecommunications Department (PTD) of the Ministry of Communications and Transport ordered mobile internet service providers last week to block more than 200 websites and online pages. The websites include those featuring pornography—including child pornography—explicit material and hate speech, as well as websites the department considers to be fake news.

Mekong News Executive Editor Ko Nyan Lin Htet said the news website was blocked by some telecom operators last Thursday and later blocked by all operators on Monday.

“We were included on the list of fake news websites set for blocking. The fact that we are   viewed as birds of a feather with fake news websites harms our reputation. We have reported this to the Press Council,” Ko Nyan Lin Htet told The Irrawaddy.

Some news websites were still accessible on Wednesday on the networks of state-owned operator MPT, Norwegian operator Telenor and internet service provider Ananda. Myanmar military-backed Mytel has blocked all the sites included in the order.

PTD director-general U Myo Sowe said government departments monitored the websites for some time before preparing the lists of sites to be blocked and issuing the order to telecom operators and internet service operators.

“We have instructed them to block porn sites and fake news websites for a long time. If the Press Council confirms that those websites have never published fake news, [government] departments will have to conduct a review and if those websites really are not fake news, they [departments] will have to order operators to remove the block,” U Myo Swe told The Irrawaddy.

Journalist U Zeya Hlaing has criticized the move to block the news websites without first notifying the Information Ministry, which issued the licenses to those websites.

“At a time when people are in a state of panic, fake news websites must be blocked and the operators of such websites should also be arrested. But any blocking [of websites] should be in line with law,” he said.

Meanwhile, the government has opened cases against Nirinjara News Chief Editor U Khaing Myat Kyaw and VOM Chief Editor U Ne Myo Lin under the Counterterrorism Law for publishing interviews with Arakan Army (AA) officials. The two have been detained.

Nirinjara News and Sittwe-based DMG have been reporting on the fighting between the Myanmar military and the AA in the region as well as alleged rights abuses against civilians committed by the Myanmar military. Both of news outlets are popular with Rakhine readers.

The Home Affairs Ministry’s Special Branch (SB) opened a lawsuit in May 2019 against DMG Chief Editor U Aung Min Oo under Article 17 (2) of the Unlawful Associations Act. Police have issued an arrest warrant for him.

On March 23, the Myanmar government declared the AA to be a terrorist group and an unlawful association, saying the ethnic armed group’s actions pose risks to the public and disrupt law and order, peace and the stability of the country.

U Myo Swe said the PTD did not receive any specific orders to block the websites.

“I am not allowed to divulge the names of websites that were blocked, but most of them are culturally inappropriate websites like those with porn and child abuse,” said U Zaw Min Oo, chief external relations officer of Mytel. “Fake news websites and pages were also blocked. Porn sites should have been blocked a long time ago. It is even late [to block them] now. I think it is a good move.”

Telenor said in its statement that the PTD has ordered them to block 14 alleged fake news websites and 207 sites allegedly featuring child phonography and fake news. Telenor at first agreed to block only 154 porn sites, initially rejecting the order to block so-called fake news websites, as there was no strong legal precedent for the order.

However, following discussions with the Communications and Transport Ministry, Telenor acknowledged the wider impacts of fake news and misinformation and blocked 67 more websites on Monday, though some news sites were still accessible on the network on Wednesday.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.

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