YANGON -- The media in Myanmar have gained new freedoms but also face a new threat in the form of lawsuits filed against them by the government.
The state-run Kyemon daily reported on March 14 that the Ministry of Mines plans legal action against a reporter and the publisher of private weekly The Voice for a report alleging misappropriation of funds.
The Modern weekly journal has already been sued on defamation charges by an engineer from the Construction Ministry. He sued over a story alleging that truck drivers had bribed local engineers to allow them to use a bridge even though their vehicles exceeded its weight limit.
Journalists were jailed, beaten and blacklisted while Myanmar was under decades of army rule, and the new elected but military-backed government continues to censor reporting about politics and other subjects it deems sensitive.
But since last year, when the nation's long-entrenched military junta stepped down, censorship has ended on subjects such as health, entertainment, fashion and sports, and reporters are testing the limited freedom emerging.
Publishers point out that the press is still not free.
"The international media have wrongly reported that Myanmar is enjoying media freedom, but the censorship board continues to delete many stories and local journals are being sued one after another," said Dr. Than Htut Aung, CEO of the prominent Weekly Eleven Media group. He described the report in The Voice -- not published by him -- as correct and meeting ethical standards.
He warned that the recent reforms could be reversed "any time."
"Rule of law can be assured only if there is media freedom," opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi said in response to a question about the issue. "I believe that restricting media freedom amounts to restricting the country's development."
The Voice in its Sunday edition, citing unnamed members of Parliament, said a report by the auditor general's office to the Public Accounts Committee had found misappropriation and irregularities in the accounts of the Information, Mines, Agriculture, Industry One and Industry Two ministries for the 2009-2011 financial years, before the ostensibly civilian current government replaced junta rule.
Kyemon said that the story in The Voice "was wrong, tarnishes the dignity of the (Mines) ministry and could adversely affect public confidence."
"The ministry will take legal action against the publisher and reporter of the article for its false accusations," it said.
Kyaw Min Swe, chief editor of The Voice, told The Associated Press he has full confidence in the authenticity of the story because it was based on a copy of the report sent by the auditor general's office to the public accounts committee.
"We have no intention to tarnish any ministry but we did it with a constructive attitude," he said. "Transparency is key to creating clean government and good governance as the President has declared, and our story is in support of greater transparency."
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