On July 1, Myanmar’s state newspapers reported the first confirmed case of swine flu in the country, a teenage girl who had come from Singapore. According to the news, she had been isolated at the general hospital and was getting better. Persons who had been in contact with her had also been quarantined.

The story resembled thousands of others around the world in the last month or so. Then the intrigue followed. Two overseas news outlets said that a writer for a local weekly news journal had also been quarantined after trying to photograph the girl… or was he detained?

According to Mizzima News, which followed up on a state radio broadcast from a day or two before the papers broke the story, the journalist had bribed hospital staff to get access to the girl. It quoted an unidentified doctor as saying that for both security and health reasons the reporter had also been kept under watch.

Then Radio Free Asia put out further details, naming the patient-cum-detainee as Ko Win Myint Kyaw from the Weekly Eleven journal. Another anonymous source told the station that the young man had bribed security staff to get inside the hospital, but a doctor had accosted him at the infected girl’s room. Thereafter he had been quarantined and reportedly also faced trouble for breaching hospital regulations.

The day after RFA covered the story, the Eleven Media Group posted a strongly-worded denial on its website. The group’s editors said that none of their staff had done anything wrong. Recounting the contents of the two foreign media reports, they said that Ko Win Myint Kyaw and another reporter, Ko Wai Yan Phyo Oo, had gone to the hospital on June 28. Ko Win Myint Kyaw had interviewed a deputy administrator and a doctor about the case. He was allowed in to take photos briefly (which the journal hasn’t published). He and his colleague then went to meet some people living in the vicinity of the infected girl’s house and took photos from outside where she lives too. After coming back to the office, the editors arranged with medical staff for Ko Win Myint Kyaw to go into quarantine.

Having established their version of the facts, the Eleven Media editors chastised the two overseas outlets for not contacting them prior to issuing the story, and accused them both of trying to damage their journal’s reputation. From the language they used, if either Mizzima or RFA had an office or staff in the country then by now they would be getting sued.

So did the Weekly Eleven correspondent pay security staff to get into the hospital? Probably. Was he detained or did he go into quarantine voluntarily? Could have been either. More to the point, did the Weekly Eleven editors get pushed into their unusually public and vociferous rebuttal of the foreign media story, or did they issue their statement out of simple concern for their own interests? Perhaps New Mandala readers have some insights.

Whether or not anyone gets any the wiser about what happened at the hospital, what the incident does show clearly is the distance between local and overseas-based media working on Myanmar. Domestic journals have staff with their feet on the ground but are forced to toe the line and write between the lines. Correspondents working by phone and email from India, Thailand, the US and elsewhere must rely on sources that they can’t verify in person and whose details they usually can’t publicize, but whose information they can write up however they like. Each to some extent relies on the other, but a little bout of swine flu goes to show how far apart they really are. The rest of us interested to keep up with events in Myanmar can but do our best to follow both and then try to figure out fact from fiction for ourselves.